Violence in Libya sows fears of long civil war; gunfire erupts in Tripoli

Thousands of supporters of Moammar Gaddafi poured into the streets of Tripoli on Sunday, waving flags and firing their guns. This comes as Libyan warplanes launched air strikes and heavy battles with a rebel force advancing towards the capital. (March 6)
Map of Libya
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:42 AM

RAS LANUF, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi escalated a lethal counterattack on Sunday, heightening assaults on rebels in two key western cities near his stronghold of Tripoli while launching airstrikes and engaging opposition bands marching from the east toward his hometown of Sirte in heavy ground clashes along the Mediterranean coast.

Libyan revolutionary forces advancing on Sirte ran into an ambush of government loyalists Sunday, leading to significant casualties and interrupting a string of recent rebel victories in their westward push toward Tripoli, according to retreating fighters.

Rebels claimed to have shot down two loyalist aircraft attacking positions near Ras Lanuf, a strategic oil refinery town 410 miles east of Tripoli that fell into rebel hands late Friday night. Mysterious volleys of gunfire and heavy artillery, meanwhile, awoke residents in Tripoli, with government officials claiming the ensuing hours of arms fire were celebrations of Gaddafi loyalist victories.

The events suggested the Gaddafi's forces were regrouping into an orchestrated counterassault against the opposition that has claimed most of the eastern half of Libya since a Feb. 17 uprising against his 41-year rule. The ferocity of the fighting indicated that the opposition would not easily push Gaddafi from his mantle, and that Libya was plunging into a potentially protracted and bloody civil war.

On the eastern road to Tripoli via Sirte, a band of rebels were finding their bold march west toward government forces with superior numbers and firepower under heavy assault. On Sunday, a group moving toward Sirte passed through the village of Binjawad, an area rebels said they had liberated the night before. As residents stood outside their houses cheering support for the revolution, snipers suddenly opened fire from rooftops, rebel fighters said.

"There were locals waving their hands and locals with weapons," said Abdulaali Abduljalil who suffered a scalp wound. "They trapped us."

One soldier was killed and at least 20 wounded were brought to a hospital at Ras Lanuf, an oil distribution center about 25 miles from the battle. A doctor here said four of the wounded were not likely to survive.

"We are not equipped to handled this," said Haitham Gheriani, a volunteer physician from the rebel's provisional capital of Benghazi, 630 miles east of Tripoli. As shelling and antiaircraft fire sounded outside the hospital, Gheriani asked western journalists to find a ride to safety for a French photographer wounded in the leg.

Earlier Sunday, Libyan fighter jets had dropped two bombs at the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, which had been taken by rebel forces less than two days earlier. And a government helicopter passed over the edge of the city as hospital workers rushed workers inside, sparking a fusillade of machine gun fire from nearby rebels.

The fighting made clear that government forces were prepared to fiercely contest the eastern front of the conflict, which had been moving steadily toward the capital.

Some rebel forces that had set out in the morning confident they could beat back loyalists forces further toward Tripoli, returned in the late morning shaken by what they described as a merciless surprise attack with RPG and heavier weapons.

"We got smashed. They are much armed," said Jamal El Guradi, a U.S. born baker of Libyan decent who came to fight with rebel forces.

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