Libyan rebels lose oil port

2011-03-12 14:34

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 Arab League.

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 action.

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 of Tripoli.

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 artillery fire.

AP writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Tripoli, Libya.

 

- AP

Read more on:    libya  |  libya protests  |  uprisings
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