Libyan rebels lose oil port
Ajdabiya - Muammar Gaddafi's regime drove out
pockets of rebel fighters who were keeping a tenuous hold around oil facilities
in a key port city, showing growing strength on Saturday after days of
relentless shelling against protesters-turned-rebels.
General Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was the
country's interior minister before he defected to the rebel side, acknowledged
on Saturday that Gaddafi's forces now control both the town and the oil
refinery in Ras Lanouf, 615km southeast of the capital, Tripoli. It was the
latest setback for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire
eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital.
But Younis vowed a comeback, saying "we
should be back today or at the latest tomorrow".
The assault on Ras Lanouf in recent days was
a sign the Gaddafi camp had regrouped after it first seemed to reel in
confusion for much of the uprising that began on February 15. With Gaddafi's
men on the march against rebels, the international community appeared in
disarray over how to stop the bloodshed.
Arab foreign ministers were meeting in Egypt
on Saturday to discuss a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian
population from the Gaddafi regime's fighter jets. But the Arab League's member
states are divided over how to deal with the Libyan crisis, signalling it would
be a tough debate.
The European Union's foreign policy chief,
Catherine Ashton, also will be in Cairo on Saturday to meet with leaders of the
In Washington, President Barack Obama said a
no-fly zone remains a possibility as "we are slowly tightening the
noose" around Gadhafi, but he stopped short of moving towards military
Tough UN sanctions
He cited actions already taken, including
getting American citizens and embassy workers out of the country, slapping
tough UN sanctions on Libya and seizing $30bn in Gaddafi's assets.
The EU, meanwhile, said a no-fly zone would
need diplomatic backing from international organisations like the Arab League.
Government forces also recaptured the
strategic town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, on Friday. Zawiya's main square, which
had been a key centre of resistance to the west of the capital, bore the scars
of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists waving green flags
rallied amid a heavy presence of uniformed pro-Gadhafi troops and snipers.
There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and
minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.
The capture of Zawiya, a coastal city of
about 200 000 people that is located near an oil port and refineries, seals off
a corridor around the capital and solidifies the government's control over the
western third of the country to the border with Tunisia. The government still
faced a rebel challenge in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, 200km southeast
The government had claimed victory in Zawiya,
50km west of Tripoli, on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust
Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was taken
by the government with other journalists into the city on Friday, said the city
was clearly in government control, with Libyan soldiers manning tanks and
trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
Grim evidence of battle was everywhere. A
makeshift clinic that had been set up inside the mosque to treat the injured
was destroyed and the floor was covered with rubble, shoes and glass while the
roof was punctured with a large hole where the dome had been.
The facades of buildings, including banks and
hotels overlooking Martyrs' Square, were devastated, the streets were strewn
with shattered glass and several palm trees had been burned or uprooted.
A 43-year-old government employee said the
shelling of the city started on Friday and was nonstop until Wednesday, the day
the government claimed victory.
"Many people were killed on Friday. The
youth were marching in the square," he said. "I don't know whom to
blame - the leader, the son of the leader, the government or the rebels. It was
peaceful. I don't know why this happened. I never imagined that I would see
Zawiya, my hometown, like this."
He said at least 24 of the protesters had
been buried in the square but the pro-Gaddafi forces had used bulldozers to
remove their bodies. The claim couldn't be independently verified, although the
area was flattened.
Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid
said the death toll was 14, including rebels and army soldiers.
Anti-Gaddafi graffiti that had covered walls
during a previous visit by the AP also had been painted over. Green flags and
pictures of Gaddafi were wrapped around some buildings.
Zawiya's fall to the opposition about a week
into the uprising illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the movement
that started with protests in the east and escalated into an armed rebellion.
But Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering opponents with air strikes and
AP writer Maggie Michael contributed to this
report from Tripoli, Libya.