In Libya, advance by Gaddafi forces sends rebels fleeing

By Liz Sly and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 9:11 PM

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi sent opposition fighters fleeing Thursday from a strategic oil port in eastern Libya that rebels had held for a week, appearing to reverse the rebels' advances toward Tripoli.

Rockets and shells pounded the city, Ras Lanuf, by air, land and sea, driving rebels and other residents farther east along the Mediterranean coast, witnesses said. Libyan officials were triumphant, asserting that the Libyan army had retaken the port and would press ahead with its offensive.

"Hear it now, I have only two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, vowed before a crowd of about 2,000 frenzied supporters gathered in a hall in Tripoli.

"Tonight Ajdabiya, tomorrow Benghazi," the crowd roared back, referring to the next town on the route to Benghazi, the capital of the rebel-held east.

Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, told reporters at a briefing that the Libyan military had managed to "clean the city [of Ras Lanuf] completely'' and had recaptured the weapons that had been seized from the military by the rebels.

Kaim also said that Libyan forces had recaptured the town of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, on Wednesday morning, and were now "cleaning" the town in preparation for a visit by journalists to verify the claim.

A reporter from the Times of London, Deborah Haynes, who visited the town independently Thursday, confirmed that it is in government hands, after two weeks of fierce fighting during which rebels managed to hold the town center. She said she saw green Libyan flags flying from the rocket-scarred buildings, and government tanks parked in the square.

Kaim also responded angrily to France's decision to recognize the transitional council set up to govern the east, calling it "a clear violation of Libyan sovereignty and independence."

Governments who are talking about recognizing the council are "leading the country to a civil war and to foreign intervention, and I'm sure no Libyan wants this," he said.

The eastern half of Libya has been in the opposition's hands since early in the three-week-old uprising. The rebels' capture of Ras Lanuf a week ago had been a major victory as they pushed eastward along Libya's long Mediterranean coastline toward Tripoli, in the far west of the country.

A day after seizing the port, the rebels charged farther ahead, nearing the outskirts of Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown in the center of the country.

But a heavy counterattack by government forces has steadily pushed them backward in recent days. Speaking by phone from Brega, Ibrahim Yousef, 35, a businessman from Benghazi, said control of Ras Lanuf still seemed to be up for grabs when he left the city in the late afternoon.

"Some areas are controlled by rebels, some by Gaddafi,'' he said. He said areas had been hit and it was difficult to evacuate the wounded.

Farther into the rebel-held east, pro-Gaddafi forces also aerially bombed the coastal town of Brega, a rebel stronghold.

"I could see the airplane high above in the sky," said Ali el-Amami, 28, a civil engineer from Brega, in a phone interview. He said the strike, which came around noon, caused no casualties and only damaged a road. Still, he said, "It's the first time there is an airstrike in the area of Brega. I think they did it to spread fear."

Amami described Brega as "a rest place" for rebels from all over the country. "They come here, stay at some . . . house, eat, sleep and then they go back to the battlefields like Ras Lanuf," he said as people continued to flow in. "The morale here is high."

Closer to the capital, in the rebel-held town of Misurata on Thursday, one resident said government forces ringing the city were cutting off the delivery of food and supplies, preventing farmers from going to their fields and abducting people on the city's outskirts.

"People are being kidnapped . . . and taken to Sirte and other places, and from there to Tripoli, where they are tortured and have to confess to crimes they did not commit," said Saleh Abed el-Aziz, an architect who was interviewed by phone.

At least seven journalists covering the conflict in Libya are missing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday. They include Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, and six Libyan journalists.

Three BBC journalists reported Wednesday that they had been assaulted and psychologically tormented during 21 hours in the custody of Libyan military and security forces this week. A reporter for Brazil's O Estado de S. Paolo was released Thursday to the Brazilian ambassador in Tripoli after being held for eight days in the city of Sabrata, the newspaper reported on its Web site. O Estado said the reporter had been held by troops loyal to Gaddafi and was told to leave Libya on Friday.

Samuel Sockol, a special correspondent, and Bahrampour contributed from Zarzis, Tunisia.

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