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Gaddafi forces mount fierce counterattack; witnesses describe 'massacre' in city under siege

Two weapons depots were hit when a pro-Gaddafi warplane hit Benghazi, Libya. The rebels claim they seized the town of Ras Lanuf with its crucial oil-shipping terminal. (March 4)

Although details were impossible to verify, witnesses in Zawiyah said dozens were dead and hundreds were wounded, with a senior rebel leader reported to be among those killed. Some reports put the death toll at well over 100. Rough video clips uploaded to the Internet showed people falling to the ground in the city's main square amid the sound of gunfire.

On Friday, one rebel fighter said Gaddafi loyalists had shot at people in front of a hospital, blocking the injured from getting treatment. Witnesses also described government troops climbing upon the tallest buildings on the edge of town and firing on crowds. Ahmad said that, in the mayhem, government forces had opened fire on an ambulance, pulled out two of the wounded and shot them dead.

In Tripoli, meanwhile, Gaddafi again moved swiftly against his opponents, who witnesses described as largely unarmed protesters attempting to demonstrate in various parts of the clamped-down city.

Early Friday, Gaddafi loyalists had erected checkpoints in the restive suburbs, searching vehicles ahead of what was expected to be the first large anti-government demonstration there in days. As hundreds of protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers, government forces moved in with tear gas and opened fire with live ammunition, according to witnesses and reports.

In the Bab al-Aziziyah neighborhood of Tripoli, protesters returned to their homes after being faced down by security forces. But others turned out in the city's Green Square chanting slogans against the regime, scattering only when bullets started to fly. "I heard the shots," said a 33-year-old electrical engineer who lives near the square. "I don't know how many were killed."

On Friday, rebels suffered other setbacks. In the heart of opposition-controlled territory in the east, a massive explosion at a weapons depot near Benghazi left at least 16 people dead, according to doctors at the city's Jalla hospital. At least 29 others were injured. Witness accounts varied, and it was unclear whether a bomb had been planted or if something inside the building detonated.

"This is not an accident. Our dictator is out of his mind,'' said Omar el-Zawawee, a senior resident at the hospital.

On a day when Gaddafi's forces appeared to be on the offensive, the rebels claimed at least one significant victory.

In eastern Libya, rebels attacked a pro-Gaddafi military base on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, about 410 miles east of Tripoli, in an attempt to capture the oil terminal on the Mediterranean. Gaddafi's forces fought back with fighter jets and ground troops, killing at least four rebels, according to Mohammed Sultan, a rebel fighter.

But just after dark Friday, the band of rebels said they had taken Ras Lanuf, with some loyalist forces hoisting a white flag of surrender. The rebels, armed with surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft weaponry and other aged weapons, were pushing forward into Bin Jawad despite being severely outgunned.

"The plan is to go toward Sirte," said Khaled Sayeh, the spokesman for the opposition's military council, referring to Gaddafi's home town, a loyalist stronghold.

Overnight and into the early morning Friday, Gaddafi's forces fired artillery rounds from a hilltop air base into the nation's third-largest city, Misurata, a rebel-held enclave between Tripoli and Sirte. Some residents said that government airplanes were sky-writing messages calling on residents to surrender.

Opposition forces said they remained in control but were being besieged by Gaddafi loyalists and were running low on food and ammunition. Said Abdul Baset Ahmed Abu Mzereek, an opposition spokesman in Misurata, called on foreign powers to airdrop supplies.

"We are fixing a lot of weapons, but that takes time," he said. "We can defeat him; it's just a matter of time."

Faiola reported from Tunis. Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Tunis and Karla Adam in London and staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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