By Leila Fadel and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011; A01
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.
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.