Gaddafi forces repel Libyan opposition; loyalists escalate counterattack on rebel-held cities

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 7, 2011; 5:06 AM

RAS LANUF, LIBYA - Moammar Gaddafi's loyalists escalated a lethal counterattack on Sunday, heightening assaults on rebel-held cities near his western stronghold of Tripoli and pushing back opposition forces attempting to advance toward the capital.

Gaddafi's expanding campaign - including a ground assault on Misurata, the nation's third-largest city - appeared to dash rebel hopes of putting a swift end to his 41-year-long rule.

Though the opposition has claimed most of the eastern half of the country since Feb. 17, the display of the government's superior firepower had loyalists celebrating in the streets of Tripoli, with state television showing them unfurling the green flag of Gaddafi's Libya and firing machine guns into the air. Their excitement, however, also appeared to be based on false claims of significant military victories by Gaddafi's forces, which have not managed to seize back cities held by the opposition.

The intensity of the government assault suggested the nation was plunging deeper into a bloody civil war, with a regrouping Gaddafi lashing out at his enemies. On Sunday, a ragtag band of rebels boldly advanced from this desert oil town 410 miles east of the capital toward Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, with their sights on Tripoli further down the road. But they returned in the late morning, shaken by what they described as a merciless surprise attack by government forces with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy artillery.

Retreating rebels said they took significant casualties in the assault, interrupting a string of recent victories in the opposition's westward push toward Tripoli.

"We got smashed. They are much armed," said Jamal el-Guradi, a U.S.-born baker of Libyan descent who came to fight with rebel forces. Fighters seeking to unseat Gaddafi managed to recover, however, and held regime forces to an apparent standstill by day's end.

In the still largely government-controlled west, meanwhile, Gaddafi's forces appeared to be sending a message to rebel-held towns that resistance would be met with ruthless force. In Zawiyah, a city 27 miles west of Tripoli that is vital to Libya's oil industry, witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded in a bloody siege Saturday. Witness reports said government forces were again bombarding the city on Sunday, and Internet, electricity and phone lines appeared to be down.

About 130 miles east of Tripoli, the government targeted rebel-held Misurata with mortar fire as tanks rolled into the city about 10 a.m. After a raging, five-hour battle, residents and rebel officials there said the opposition had managed to expel the loyalist force with weapons taken from army depots, seizing two tanks and five armed trucks - a statement supported by al-Jazeera television footage showing rebels celebrating atop the vehicles.

A rebel spokesman at a Misurata hospital, Abed el-Salam Bayo, said 21 opposition fighters and civilians were killed, including a 3-year-old boy, along with 19 government troops. At least 88 were wounded.

One resident, Mohamad Sanusi, 44, said he observed government troops "randomly open fire" on people from the back of a Red Crescent ambulance. "Gaddafi is a butcher," said Sanusi, whose neighbor was killed in the fighting.

On Monday morning, however, there appeared to be a lull in the fighting. Sanusi said Misurata was quiet, and burying its dead.

"Young people are out cleaning the streets, some are checking passersby, and we are preparing for any situation," he said. "Some of the shops are open but most are closed. ... Today there will be more funerals in the city of those who died as martyrs in the battle."

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