Friday, August 26, 2011

NATO and Western-backed Rebels Meet Fierce Defense by Libyan Patriots

NATO and Western-backed Rebels Meet Fierce Defense by Libyan Patriots

By CHARLES LEVINSON in Tripoli and SAM DAGHER in Ras Lanuf, Libya
Associated Press

Rebel fighters search a captured loyalist soldier on Thursday during fighting in Tripoli's Abu Salim district, known as a pro-Gadhafi stronghold.

Fierce fighting continued in Tripoli and rebels retreated under fire from pro-regime soldiers on the road near Col. Moammar Gadhafi's tribal home, as battles continued between rebels and loyalists of Libya's defiant and elusive leader.

Combat raged at the edges of Tripoli's Abu Salim neighborhood, a sprawling slum in the southern half of the capital that has long been known as a pro-Gadhafi stronghold and where many of his loyalists are believed to have withdrawn as the rebels moved into the capital.

At nightfall, weary rebel fighters returned from the front lines frustrated at their failure to make headway against loyalist forces in the neighborhood. The fierce resistance by pro-Gadhafi troops led some rebels to speculate that Col. Gadhafi or members of his family were hiding in the neighborhood.

Numerous reports also circulated Thursday of mass killings in the capital. The opposition Misrata Military Council said loyalist soldiers tossed hand grenades and fired machine guns at around 140 prisoners at a government detention facility in Tripoli before the loyalists withdrew, killing all but 20 of the prisoners. The report couldn't be independently verified.

News agencies also reported the discovery Thursday of more than two dozen bodies near Col. Gadhafi's Tripoli compound of Bab al-Aziziya.

A rebel fighter kicked down a door during a house search for snipers in the Abu Slim area of Tripoli Thursday.

The identities of the dead were unclear, with the Associated Press reporting they were likely pro-Gadhafi activists who were protesting bombings of the compound by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. Other reports called them pro-Gadhafi fighters. Several of the dead had been shot in the head, with their hands tied behind their backs, according to reports.

Also in the capital, a gunbattle broke out in front of a major hotel in the heart of the city where many journalists are staying. The battle raged for much of the afternoon in front of the Corinthia Hotel, one of Tripoli's best accommodations, with correspondents from several international news organizations trapped inside. Many of the journalists were among those released the day before from a dayslong siege at a different hotel, the Rixos.

The battles underscored how, days after rebel forces marched triumphantly into Tripoli, the battle for Libya is far from over as its leader of more than four decades remains in hiding.

Col. Gadhafi, in a recorded voice message released late Thursday, urged his supporters to "march in the millions to Tripoli to drive away infidels, crusaders, rats and traitors."

"Don't be afraid of them [NATO and rebels].…The rebels are few and you are plenty," a defiant Col. Gadhafi said in his third speech since he appeared to go underground early Tuesday. "Fight them from street to street, and from alley to alley....It is the time for martyrdom or victory," he said. He urged loyalists not to fear NATO airstrikes."Those are just sound bombs," he said.

The brief voice clip was aired by two pro-Gadhafi television broadcasters, Libya's Al Urubah TV and Syria-based Al Rai TV, which is run by a businessman with ties to Iraqi insurgents.

Earlier Thursday, Col. Gadhafi's spokesman said the leader is safely in hiding and leading the battle against the Libyan rebels. Moussa Ibrahim said in a phone call to the AP that the longtime dictator was in Libya and his morale was high.

In a major front east of Tripoli, rebels retreated under heavy fire on the coastal road near the strategic oil-port town of Ras Lanuf.

The rebels—who have been attempting to make their way from Libya's east toward the city of Sirte, where some believe Col. Gadhafi could be—gave back ground they had gained in recent days during their westward push in the direction of Tripoli.

Rebels have said pro-Gadhafi forces armed with medium and heavy weaponry control a slice of the country extending from Sirte, the coastal town that is the home base of Col. Gadhafi's tribe, southward to Sebha in the interior.

The rebels have vowed to overtake Sirte by force if necessary and link up with fellow fighters from Misrata, another major port city, thereby wresting control of the entire Libyan coast from Col. Gadhafi's forces.

Emboldened by events in Tripoli, fighters in the east pushed along the coast and grabbed territory that they gained and lost numerous times since March.

On Tuesday, they reached the town of Ben Jawad near Sirte only to be pushed back east to Sidrah, another oil-facilities town, where most of the fighting was taking place on Thursday.

Rami Mohamed, a fighter from the eastern city of Bayda, said rebels came under attack at 8 a.m. local time in Sidrah, forcing some of them to head back to Ras Lanuf.

Rebels said residential areas in Ras Lanuf had been attacked Thursday morning as well. One rebel fighter said a rocket landed near them but didn't kill anyone. He said they started evacuating residents of the city in the morning and that many were heading out to other towns further east toward Benghazi by afternoon. Ambulances were speeding east from the battle front, sirens wailing, carrying wounded fighters.

Reinforcements headed west in the opposite direction piled into flatbed trucks and pickup trucks. One flatbed truck had a rocket-launcher that a rebel said was seized from Gadhafi forces earlier in the week.

Seeing the rocket launcher, rebel fighters cheered and fired guns into the air.

Later on Thursday, more fighters and truckloads of ammunition were seen heading toward Sidrah and two flatbed trucks transported tanks.

Confusion remains over the extent of rebel control over the area. At one point, a man from Benghazi who works in the giant oil complex at Ras Lanuf, which includes a refinery, petrochemical plant and a terminal, argued with rebels at a checkpoint.

He told them the rebel leadership had announced that workers could return to the refinery because the rebels had liberated the area.

.The rebels refused to let him through, saying it wasn't safe. When he protested that rebel leaders had said the area was under their control, the rebels told him, "What do these people know? They're civilians. We're the soldiers."

Rebels were in control of the Ras Lanuf complex. About a dozen fighters were seen camped out in the parking lot. Others were inside the administrative offices, and except for a smokestack flaring gas, the facility was closed but appeared to be intact and unaffected by the fighting.But at the Brega terminal east of Ras Lanuf, thick black smoke was seen coming from an oil-storage tank that was hit in the fighting over the past week, said an engineer at the facility.

NATO said on Thursday that it continues to make airstrikes, saying it hit seven targets on Wednesday, including two military storage facilities, two antiaircraft guns and a radar.

The U.K.'s Royal Air Force Thursday said that it destroyed three vehicles on Wednesday that had been used to transport the Scud missiles that have been fired out of Col. Gadhafi's home town of Sirte.

In a separate development, four Italian journalists taken at gunpoint in Libya were freed in a raid on the house where they were being held Thursday, the AP reported.

Details of the raid, first reported on Corriere della Sera's website, and information on who conducted it wasn't immediately available, the AP reported. The Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the four were freed, but had no further details, it said.

The four were taken at gunpoint on Wednesday by forces loyal to the regime. Their Libyan driver was killed.

—Leila Hatoum, Adam Entous and Peter Wonacott and Alistair MacDonald contributed to this article.

Write to Charles Levinson at and Sam Dagher at

1 comment:

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