Gaddafi forces mount fierce counterattack

Map of Libya
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on Friday unleashed their fiercest counterattack yet, assaulting rebel-held positions by ground and air and firing on demonstrators in the government stronghold of Tripoli.

The lethal force of the government offensive, including what rebels described as a "bloodbath" in the strategic western port of Zawiyah, 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 events Friday 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 Friday 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 late Friday, the city remained under siege.

"We are still in the square," said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman. "Zawiyah has not fallen."

Gaddafi loyalists armed with tanks and heavy machine guns and reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi launched an offensive around midday, 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.

Though details were impossible to verify, witnesses in Zawiyah said at least 15 people were killed and 200 wounded, with a senior rebel leader reported to be among the dead. Some reports put the death toll as high as 50. Rough video clips uploaded to the Internet showed people falling to the ground in the city's main square amid the sound of gunshots.

One rebel fighter said Gaddafi loyalists shot at people in front of a hospital, blocking the injured from getting treatment. Pro-Gaddafi forces reached the gates of the city, climbing upon the tallest buildings outside the edge of town and firing on crowds, witnesses said. Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor, said that in the mayhem government forces had opened fire on an ambulance, pulled out two of the wounded inside and shot them dead.

"This is inhuman behavior," Ahmad said. "There are hundreds wounded. There is no room for all of them in the hospital. It is a tragedy."

A rebel fighter in Zawiyah who spoke on the condition of anonymity said opposition forces still outnumbered the government troops. But the opposition was running low on ammunition, sandwiched between government-controlled territories and unable to get fresh supplies.

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