BENGHAZI // Libyan rebels regained control of an oil facility at Marsa El Brega after they clashed with and drove away forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, after fierce fighting that left two people dead.
Qaddafi loyalist forces armed with tanks and heavy artillery retook control of a key oil installation and port on the coast of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya today and warplanes bombed an ammunition depot on the outskirts of a nearby town also controlled by the opposition, witnesses said.
However, the Qaddafi forces were driven back by rebels who have controlled the town 800 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli for about a week, rebel officers said.
A resident of Brega, which is 200km southwest of the main eastern city and revolutionary cradle of Benghazi, also confirmed that the coastal town remained in opposition hands.
"The town is under the control of rebel forces, there are only some pro-Qaddafi forces surrounding Brega university," the resident said by telephone.
A member of the rebel forces and an oil company engineer who arrived in Ajdabiya from Brega told AFP that two people had been killed in the fighting. Brega itself was impossible to reach today.
Oil company official Ahmed Ali said the sound of gunfire had woken him early today at his firm's compound.
"I saw mercenaries from Chad who had taken up position at the company gates. I left in a car with a colleague. They stopped the car to search us for weapons before letting us go," Mr Ali said.
Another refugee from Brega, who gave his name as Mustafa, said Colonel Qaddafi's forces lay in wait overnight about 30 kilometres from the town.
"At dawn they returned and took control of the refinery. The rebel forces then arrived and made them retreat," he said.
Mehdi Suleiman Hussein, a fighter from Ajdabiya, told AFP that "Qaddafi's forces arrived in Brega and fought, but now they are pulling back," adding however that some "mercenaries" were still battling the rebels.
The rebels said they would probably seek foreign military help, a sensitive topic for Western countries uncomfortably aware that Iraq suffered years of bloodletting and al Qa'eda violence after a US-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein.
"We are probably going to call for foreign help, probably air strikes at strategic locations that will put the nail in his (Qaddafi's) coffin," Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, told Reuters.
"They tried to take Brega this morning, but they failed. It is back in the hands of the revolutionaries. He (Qaddafi) is trying to create all kinds of psychological warfare to keep these cities on edge," he said.
Their account was contradicted by Libyan state TV, which said Colonel Qaddafi's forces held the airport and seaport.
Colonel Qaddafi's forces are escalating a counteroffensive after government opponents over the past two weeks seized control of the eastern half of the country and several cities and towns in the western half near the regime stronghold in the capital Tripoli.
On Tuesday, loyalists pushed back rebels from towns near Tripoli, where Colonel Qaddafi appears to be in full control. They also kept up military operations for a second straight day to try to wrest back Zawiya, the city closest to the capital which is in the hands of government opponents. But rebels, backed by mutinous army forces and their weapons, have managed to repel those attacks and held on to Zawiya so far.
Also today, warplanes bombed an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the rebel-held eastern city of Ajdabiya, about 40 miles north-east of Brega and 140 kilometres south of Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast.
Libyan forces have launched repeated air strikes during the two-week revolt but all of them have been reported to target facilities that store weapons in areas controlled by the rebellion. However, some air force pilots have said they bailed out because they were ordered to bomb civilians. Colonel Qaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, has repeatedly said air strikes have not been used against civilians though he has acknowledged bombing weapons depots.
Witnesses said they saw two warplanes bomb the eastern outskirts of Ajdabiya at 10am local time. They also said pro-Qaddafi forces were advancing on the city of about 150,000 people, some 750 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli.
One witness said airstrikes by Colonel Qaddafi's planes had apparently targeted a weapons dump that was also hit two days ago. But residents said it had hit a former army base near the town.
There were no casualties, they said. "There has been an air strike three kilometres past Ajdabiya towards Brega. It was the military base of El Haniya. It was not successful. They (pro-Qaddafi forces) hit outside the military base," he said.
"Nobody was injured because it hit in no man's land."
Another witness said rebel forces were rushing to the western side of Ajdabiya to meet the advancing pro-Qaddafi force.
"We are ready to repel their attack," the witness said.
Colonel Qaddafi's regime retook at least two towns in the western half of the country near Tripoli in the past few days and threatened a third in recent days, while rebels repulsed attacks on three other key areas, the city of Misrata east of Tripoli, the city of Zawiya west of the capital, and the mountain town of Zintan south of the capital.
One of those retaken by the pro-Qaddafi forces was the strategic mountain town of Gharyan, the largest in the Nafusa Mountains, which overlooks Tripoli, a resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.