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Gaddafi forces attack rebels anew, even as regime appears to seek talks

By Steve Hendrix and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; A01

RAS LANUF, LIBYA - Government and rebel forces engaged in a fierce battle Monday for control of this oil depot on the Mediterranean coast, as regime loyalists mounted assaults on several fronts to reclaim ground lost since the Feb. 17 uprising began.

In a second day of heavy fighting for control of Ras Lanuf, the site of a major oil refinery east of Tripoli, loyalists bombarded the town with airstrikes. To the west, the besieged rebel-held city of Zawiyah faced a fourth straight day of lethal assault.

But with neither side able to muster overwhelming force, the result appeared to be a bloody stalemate, with the death tolls rising in both east and west from the burgeoning civil war over Moammar Gaddafi's 41-year-long rule.

"Yesterday, we were so optimistic," said Najla el-Mangoush, a law professor who works with the opposition's governing council in the eastern city of Benghazi. "Now I'm worried about what's happening." He said that Gaddafi "has used every dirty trick on us."

In an apparent government overture, a former Libyan prime minister appeared on state television to make what was called a direct appeal to the leaders of the opposition in Benghazi, the rebels' provisional capital.

"Give a chance to national dialogue to resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again," said Jadallah Azous al-Talhi, who was prime minister in the 1980s.

The opposition, however, dismissed the notion of peace talks. "They've been asking for contact, but the council has refused," said Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman with the opposition in Benghazi, referring to the revolutionaries' governing committee. Mohamed Fanoush, a member of the Benghazi city council who is allied with the opposition, also said overtures from Gaddafi's regime had been rejected out of hand. "The answer was: 'There will be no negotiations as long as you are killing Libyans,' " Fanoush said.

In the western city of Zawiyah, a rebel spokesman speaking by satellite phone said Gaddafi's troops had rolled into the city with tanks for a fourth day Monday. Phone, electricity and Internet services had been cut. "They demolished the mosque, came into the square, but after seven hours, we beat them back," said the spokesman, Mohamed Magid.

He said that at least 10 rebels were killed and more than 30 wounded in what he described as fierce urban warfare. "For a fourth day, they have come, and for a fourth day, we have beat them back. But they are still on the east, west and south of the city, and they are going to return. . . . We are low on supplies, medicines. We need support. We need help."

Another rebel-held city, Misurata, which is Libya's third largest, appeared quiet most of Monday, after weathering a major assault by government troops Sunday. A rebel spokesman at a Misurata hospital, Abed el-Salam Bayo, said 21 opposition fighters and civilians were killed along with 19 government troops. As night fell Monday, door-to-door alerts warned residents that loyalist tanks were again approaching.

"We still fear another attack, so everyone is preparing molotov cocktails that we are making from Pepsi-Cola bottles," said Salah Abed El-Aziz, a 60-year-old architect in Misurata. "The morale in the city is very high. It was a beautiful battle; the price was high. But this is the price we have to pay for our freedom."

In Ras Lanuf, which was seized by rebels Friday, the government launched a morning air attack. At least one bomb fell inside the grounds of an ethylene refinery, where chemical storage tanks posed a major risk of explosion. Although the Libyan jets dropped bombs in the area throughout the day, Gallal said that there had been no ground fighting and that rebels maintained control of the city.

"Ras Lanuf is definitely in the hands of the rebels," Gallal said. "But the other guys are well dug in." At least for now, the government appears to have succeeded in holding off what the rebels hoped would be a push westward to Sirte, a government stronghold halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli that is Gaddafi's home town.

Gaddafi made an appearance on state television Monday that was inexplicably cut short. He got more time in during an interview with a French television network, during which he said Libya was an important partner of the West and attempted to paint the rebels as al-Qaeda operatives.

Nearly 200,000 people have fled Libya since the fighting began, according to the United Nations, which said Monday that it expects the number to double over the next three months. In all, as many as 1 million Libyans and migrant workers will require assistance, the United Nations said in issuing an appeal for $160 million to cover the costs.

A summary of the appeal said that although "the clearest humanitarian needs" stem from the outflow of people fleeing the crisis, "there are likely to be many more migrants within Libya who want to leave" but have been unable to do so.

U.N. officials cautioned that the estimate is preliminary and that they do not have a complete picture of the extent of need in Libya, particularly in government-controlled Tripoli and the conflict zone in the west. Over the weekend, Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa acceded to a request by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send an assessment team to Tripoli to determine the extend of Libya's humanitarian needs. But as of Monday, the U.N. team had not been given the visas and guarantees of unhindered access it needs to carry out its work.

Ban has named Abdul-Illah Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, as a special U.N. envoy to Libya. Khatib has been directed to consult with Libyan authorities and others in the region "on the immediate humanitarian situation as well as the wider dimensions of the crisis."

Faiola reported from Tunis. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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