By Steve Hendrix , Anthony Faiola and Samuel Sockol
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."Loyalists rally in Tripoli
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.