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Libyan rebels push back assault by Gaddafi forces in port city of Brega

Rebels drove troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi from the coastal town of Brega after government forces had taken it.
Rebels drove troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi from the coastal town of Brega after government forces had taken it. (John Moore)

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By Leila Fadel and Steve Hendrix
Thursday, March 3, 2011

BREGA, LIBYA - Rebels fought off a coordinated assault by military jets and armored ground forces near a key oil port Wednesday, thwarting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's most significant attempt yet to retake eastern territory that he lost last week amid a nationwide uprising.

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Despite aged equipment and little training, a ragtag team of thousands that rushed to Brega repelled government forces and retook the port city after setbacks earlier in the day. Emboldened by their victory, the rebels planned to advance west and on to Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, some said.

"He has the force, but we have the heart," said Suleiman Abdel, a surgeon and, now, a rebel.

The government's assault on Brega, which included multiple airstrikes, showed that Gaddafi still has substantial military resources at his disposal - and that he is willing to use them. Even as the battle unfolded, Gaddafi pledged in a defiant televised address to "fight to the last drop of Libyan blood."

The day's clashes suggested that in the absence of outside intervention, Libya could be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Gaddafi holds Tripoli and other western cities, the rebels control the east, and neither side appears able to decisively shift the balance.

"He showed he still has the power to inflict serious damage on the protesters and the places they control," said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. "If he is willing to use the air force, this could drag on for months."

Rebel leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi called Wednesday for international airstrikes against government targets, as well as a no-fly zone to keep Gaddafi's planes out of the sky. But U.S. officials have said that such steps are unlikely.

The United States has spoken out against Gaddafi but has few contacts among the opposition.

Britain said Wednesday that Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeidi, a former Libyan interior minister it described as "the senior military figure" among the rebels, had spoken by telephone with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

According to a British government statement, Hague told Obeidi that Britain is "deeply concerned about the violence and is in the process of contingency planning for all eventualities, including a no-fly zone, in close conjunction with its allies."

NATO and members of the U.N. Security Council have said that military intervention, including a no-fly zone, would require U.N. authorization. Russia and China, with veto power on the panel, have indicated that they would oppose such authorization.

In Washington, administration officials and lawmakers voiced widely divergent opinions about direct intervention. "If it's ordered, we can do it," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said of a no-fly zone Wednesday. But Gates cautioned against "loose talk about military options."

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