BENGHAZI // Troops loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi shelled an oil town in eastern Libya yesterday, pounding pockets of resistance during their swift advance on the country's poorly equipped and loosely organised rebels.
Rebel officials in their stronghold of Benghazi said Brega, the site of a major oil terminal, came under heavy shelling. Libyan state television reported that government troops had retaken the town, but the report could not immediately be verified.
The loss of Brega would be the latest in a series of setbacks for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital, Tripoli. But Col Qaddafi's troops have reversed many of those early gains, bearing down on the rebels with superior firepower from the air.
The rebels are fighting to oust Col Qaddafi from power after more than 41 years, inspired by protesters who managed to topple authoritarian rulers in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. However, the Libyan uprising has already proved much more violent, and could be the start of a drawn out and bloody civil war.
Despite the deadly, month-long conflict, Libya has asked foreign firms to resume oil exports from the North African nation, saying its ports are safe, state television said yesterday. "Libyan oil terminals have become safe … All employees are asked to return to their jobs in all oil facilities. And we urge [foreign] firms to send their tankers to load and unload," the television said, quoting the National Oil Corporation.
Oil giant Total said on Friday that unrest in Libya had slashed output by 1.4 million barrels a day to under 300,000. Libya was producing 1.69 barrels a day before the unrest, according to the International Energy Agency. Of this 1.2 million were exported, mostly to Europe. Other major customers are China and the United States.
With Col Qaddafi becoming more internationally isolated, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was set to leave yesterday for a trip to Europe and the Middle East to establish the administration's highest-level contacts with the Libyan opposition.
She plans to see foes of Col Qaddafi in Paris on Monday to assess their capabilities and intentions.
The Arab League has also shunned the Libyan leader and asked the UN Security Council on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone. In surprisingly aggressive language, the 22-member bloc said the Libyan government had "lost its sovereignty" and asked the United Nations to "shoulder its responsibility" and impose the restriction. The rebels have called for a no-fly zone as well, saying they are no match for the Qaddafi regime's fighter jets.
The US and many allies have expressed deep reservations about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone, and the possibility it could drag them into another messy conflict in the Muslim world. Western diplomats have said Arab and African approval was necessary before the Security Council voted on imposing a no-fly zone, which would be imposed by Nato nations to protect civilians from air attack by Col Qaddafi's forces.
A rebel fighter who said he was in Brega a day earlier reported that government forces conducted strikes on the town with aircraft, tanks and naval ships off the coast, forcing the rebels to flee. He asserted that the rebels would regroup quickly and take it back, claiming the government had powerful weapons but lacked the manpower to hold onto towns. He did not want to be identified by name.
Also yesterday, Col Qaddafi's forces appeared to edge closer to rebel-held Misrata, battling fighters on the outskirts of Libya's third-largest city, 200 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, residents reported.
One resident, who did not want his name used because he fears for his safety, said streets inside the city were empty as people took cover in their homes and the noise of tanks, anti-aircraft fire and machine guns grew ever-nearer.
A day earlier, the Libyan government took reporters from Tripoli, 600km east by plane and bus to show off its control of the former front-line town of Bin Jawwad, the scene of brutal battles six days earlier between insurgents and Qaddafi loyalists using artillery, rockets and helicopter gunships.
On Saturday, the Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber was killed in what the pan-Arab satellite station described as an ambush outside Benghazi. Correspondent Baybah Wald Amhadi said the crew's car came under fire from the rear as it returned from an assignment south of Benghazi. Mr al-Jaber was shot three times in the back and a fourth bullet hit another correspondent near the ear and wounded him.
* Associated Press with additional reporting from Agence-France Presse