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

Loyalists rally in Tripoli

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.

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 reporters from a group of foreign news organizations that does not include The Washington Post.

Government officials in the capital denied that fighting had broken out. Televised images and reports showed hundreds of Gaddafi loyalists rallying in the streets, apparently prompted by government announcements of strategic advances.

Mohamad Abed el-Wahhab, a Gaddafi supporter in Tripoli reached by phone, said: "We were in Green Square today celebrating the victory. Praise the lord; our leader is beloved by us. We shouted 'Long live Moammar,' 'God is great' and 'Only Libya.' We came in big numbers to celebrate the liberation of our lands."

On the road to Tripoli that passes through Sirte, a band of rebels found their bold march west toward government forces met with superior numbers and firepower. A group moving toward Sirte passed through the village of Bin Jawad, an area that rebels said they had liberated the night before. As residents stood outside their houses cheering for the revolution, snipers 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."

Seven fighters were killed. At least 59 wounded were brought to a hospital at Ras Lanuf, and a doctor here said four of the wounded were not likely to survive. "We are not equipped to handle this," said Haitham Gheriani, a volunteer physician.

'Need better weapons'

The chaotic retreat illustrated the often pell-mell nature of rebel operations, in which laborers and teachers with little training are left to find rides to the front in private vehicles. Some of those who charged through Bin Jawad early Sunday, standing in pickup trucks and flashing the ubiquitous two-fingered victory salute, were moving faster than commanders wanted.

"We have a good plan in our fight against Gaddafi. Unfortunately, we don't control all the volunteers," said a former Libyan general who is now a member of the revolutionary military council and asked not to be identified by name. "Sometimes they let emotions rule."

But the rebel army responded to the blow earlier in the day by pouring reinforcements into the fight. By early afternoon, their cars raced toward Bin Jawad. From a truck with a loudspeaker came a request for anyone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to haul a rocket launcher to the front. A man pulled to the side of the road, handing out rocket-propelled grenades from his open trunk to the quickly growing crowd.

The engagement continued until dark, with no decisive winner.

Half an hour before sunset, about three miles from the village and just beyond the range of mortar shells that fell with a steady whomp, Salah Merwas took a break from fixing a tire on his green pickup. A delivery worker in the Benghazi vegetable market before he took up arms against the regime, Merwas said he had been at the front since dawn with his machine gun.

"We need better weapons," he said. "They are shooting at us with antiaircraft guns."

Faiola and Sockol, a special correspondent, reported from Tunis.

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