Gaddafi intensifies campaign
Monday, March 7, 2011
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 to put a swift end to his 41-year rule.
Though the opposition has claimed most of the eastern half 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.
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 opposition victories in their westward push toward Tripoli.
"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. 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. Eyewitness reports said government forces were again bombarding the city on Sunday, and the 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. There were at least 88 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.
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.