By Steve Hendrix , Anthony Faiola and Samuel Sockol
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.
It was unclear whether the fighters, who have been quickly trained and armed and usually ride to battle in private cars and trucks, would attempt a move back toward Sirte Sunday. In the early afternoon, rebels returning to Ras Lanuf for ammunition reported that fighting had resumed around Binjiwad. Rebel reinforcements began to arrive from the east, including multiple pickups with mounted with anti-aircraft guns. There were unconfirmed reports that rebels had managed to encircle the town after heavy fighting.
In Zawiyah, a city vital to Libya's oil industry and where witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded in a bloody siege on Saturday, eyewitness reports said government forces were again bombarding the city on Sunday. The Internet, electricity and phone lines appeared to be down. Late Saturday, the government and the opposition had both claimed control of Zawiyah. Though accounts were impossible to verify, witnesses described a "massacre" in the worst of a two-day siege in which shells rained on neighborhoods and bullet-ridden bodies of fighters were strewn in the streets of the city, 27 miles west of Tripoli.
To the east of Tripoli, rebel-held Misurata, Libya's third largest city, was coming under heavy attack, being shelled by the regime and with tanks rolling into the city, a rebel activist in the city told the Al-Jazeera network.
In Tripoli, sustained rounds of gunfire erupted just before 6 a.m., along with the sound of heavy artillery, according to a resident reached by phone and other news reports. Journalists' access to the city has been strictly limited by the government, which has invited a group of reporters from foreign news organizations that does not include the Post.
Government officials in the capital denied fighting had broken out and reports said Gaddafi loyalists were rallying in parts of the city to celebrate a string of fresh victories. Ecstatic Gaddafi supporters waving the green national flag of the regime and holding banners bearing his image could be seen on state TV riding through the city with guns. Some reports indicated thousands of loyalists had taken to the streets, apparently prompted by government announcements of strategic advances, though it remained unclear what prompted such a move so early in the morning.
Mussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi's spokesman, told Reuters: "I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, there is no fighting going on in Tripoli. Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 percent under control. What you are hearing is celebratory fireworks. People are in the streets, dancing in the square."
Yet the ferocity of the campaign in Zawiyah illustrated the challenge ahead for government forces as they seek to decisively win back territory lost since the uprising against Gaddafi began Feb. 17.
After striking the city Friday, Gaddafi loyalists reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi escalated their attack Saturday. 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 billowing from various neighborhoods. Yet within three hours, the rebels succeeded, witnesses said, in driving Gaddafi's forces out of the city's center after blowing up two tanks with hand-held rocket-propelled grenades.
Loyalist snipers took positions on rooftops, firing on the central square before pulling back to the city's perimeter. The shelling of the city, however, continued. Witnesses said houses and buildings were severely damaged.
Rebels 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 were being held as prisoners of war.
"It is a massacre. They are striking civilians, they are attacking us from all directions," Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor, said by phone during one of the attacks. Explosions and whizzing bullets could be heard around him as he spoke. "People are running around shouting, 'God is great!' You can hear the shooting everywhere. This is madness. Why is the international community not interfering?"
Abu Ala, a Zawiyah resident in his 50s who declined to give his full name, said he had seen loyalist forces execute two rebels with their hands tied behind their backs Saturday morning. "Today, I saw a heinous crime," he said. "It was opposite my house, and it was shocking."
Loyalists' tanks rolled in again about six hours later. Rebels said they succeeded in largely repelling the second wave using aging equipment seized from military depots. But at least one hospital in Zawiyah appeared to fall into the hands of the government. A man, reached by phone, described himself as a doctor there and called himself a Gaddafi loyalist. The government in Tripoli said that virtually all of the city was under its control.
"The situation in Zawiyah is quiet and peaceful right now," Gaddafi's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Qaid, told a group of foreign reporters in Tripoli on Saturday. "We hope by tomorrow morning life will be back to normal."
But rebels in Zawiyah insisted they were not yet beaten. "The fight here is going to be symbolically important to the struggle," said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman. "If Gaddafi wins, he will have the upper hand, but we will not allow that to happen."
On Saturday, a tense quiet gripped the capital after government troops had fired tear gas and live ammunition at demonstrators on Friday. Though they have openly criticized Gaddafi before, two residents reached in the city's restive suburbs declined to talk to a foreign journalist Saturday, insisting that their phones were being monitored by the government. A third resident who asked that her name be withheld said her family "was terrified" after a government crackdown on the capital in which security agents have reportedly sought and detained suspected government opponents.
"We are afraid to leave the house," she said, adding that there was a mixture of "hope and fear in the air." She said her family members had gathered "household weapons," including knives and scrap metal, in their living room to defend themselves should Gaddafi's loyalists come for them. "We have never gone through anything like this in our lives."
In the east, opposition forces displayed renewed bravado on the back of their ground success at Ras Lanuf, an oil refinery town 410 miles east of Tripoli, late Friday. Rebel forces fortified their hold on the town and opened fire on a loyalist helicopter Saturday, according to reports. They said they expected to take the capital "within days."
Yet the opposition centered in Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, backed away from earlier calls for international airstrikes to weaken Gaddafi.
"The revolutionaries have no need of airstrikes," said Hafida Gogha, spokesman for the Libyan National Council, which is representing rebel-held cities.
Libyan rebels said they were advancing on Sirte, Gaddafi's home town and his second-most important stronghold.
"They are surrounding Sirte now," Khaled el-Sayeh, a coordinator between the opposition's military forces and its interim ruling council, told Bloomberg News. "We have sufficient forces to liberate Sirte, just like we had when we liberated Ras Lanuf."
In Washington, the Obama administration stepped up efforts to evacuate stranded foreigners and provide humanitarian relief.
The State Department announced $3 million in additional aid for the International Organization for Migration, which is overseeing operations to return thousands of Egyptian workers and others from Africa and Asia who fled Libya and are at the border with Tunisia.
Two U.S. Marine aircraft departed Djerba, Tunisia, for Cairo on Saturday with a total of 132 Egyptians. Two Air Force C-130 aircraft were en route to the border region to evacuate additional stranded workers, State Department officials said. _blank
Faiola and Sockol reported from Tunis. Staff writers Leila Fadel in Benghazi and Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.