By Leila Fadel and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:11 AM
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi escalated their fiercest counterattack yet against the opposition Saturday, laying violent siege to a rebel enclave in the strategic western port city of Zawiyah.
A government campaign unleashed Friday was continuing unabated, as troops shelled residential neighborhoods and rolled into the city in tanks. Rebels, who were still managing to hold the city, described a "massacre" with dozens dead and hundreds wounded.
The lethal force of the government offensive raised the stakes for Washington and its Western allies. They have threatened military intervention if the Gaddafi government crosses red lines including the systematic endangerment of defenseless civilians or if the battle for Libya evolves into a long-term, bloody stalemate.
Yet if anything, the fresh wave of attacks underscored Gaddafi's ability to press defiantly ahead with a brutal campaign to reclaim land lost to the rebels and squelch dissent within bastions of government control. The government appeared to be trying to secure a buffer zone around Tripoli and target areas vital to the country's oil industry, taking aim at cities and ports that have given the rebels a foothold close to the capital.
The White House expressed renewed alarm, saying that President Obama is "appalled by the use of force against unarmed, peaceful civilians." Obama is being briefed on Libya three times a day, and "we're not taking any options off the table," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
With thousands of refugees stuck on the Tunisian border with Libya, two U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes flew in humanitarian supplies for them Friday and planned to return Saturday to pick up Egyptian refugees and fly them home.
The fiercest attack fell on the opposition-held city of Zawiyah, home to one of Libya's largest oil refineries and situated 27 miles west of Tripoli. Official Libyan media said the government had retaken the city, though the rebels there denied it. As of early Saturday, the city remained under siege.
Gaddafi loyalists armed with tanks and heavy machine guns and reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi launched the offensive around midday Friday, rebels said. Forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the city from several directions, using tanks, sport-utility vehicles and trucks armed with heavy machine guns, witnesses said. They also laid siege to the city with mortar fire.
On Saturday, the Gaddafi loyalists were still pressing their counterattack on the city. At 7 a.m. local time, tanks rolled into the city accompanied by heavy shelling and machine-gun assaults, with witnesses reporting great plumes of black smoke bellowing from various neighborhoods. Yet the rebels succeeded, witnesses said, in driving Gaddafi's forces out of the town center after blowing up two tanks with hand-held rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of opposition forces were still hunkered down with machine guns, defending the town square as the shelling of the city continued.
"It is a massacre, they are striking civilians, they are attacking us from all directions," said Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor. He said he was told by other doctors of at least 70 victims lying dead in just one part of town. "People are running around shouting, 'God is great.' You can hear the shooting everywhere. This is madness. Why is the international community not interfering?"
Eyewitnesses said that Gaddafi's forces were shelling even residential neighborhoods, flattening entire houses. Rebels, however, claimed to be inflicting heavy damage on their better-armed opponents, saying dozens of Gaddafi's fighters had been killed. Still others were captured, they said, and being held as POWS. Though the opposition repelled the attempt to take the town square, they were bracing for another attack amid reports Gaddafi was sending reinforcements.
"They did not expect this kind of resistance. They thought we were weak," said Mohammed Salem, 23, a medical student turned rebel fighter in Zawiyah. "We are expecting yet another and more forceful attack against us."
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.