Rebels begin push toward Libya's capital, Tripoli, after gaining ground in eastern half of country including key oil ports.
Libya rebels advance toward capital
RAS LANOUF, LIBYA // Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward the capital Tripoli along the country's Mediterranean coastline today and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddhafi engaged in intense ground battles with the rival fighters.
The opposition force pushed out of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya late last week for the first time and have been cutting a path west toward Tripoli. On the way, they secured control of two important oil ports at Brega and Ras Lanouf and by Sunday, the rebels were advancing further west when they were hit by the helicopter fire and confrontations with ground forces.
Fierce ground battles were raging around the front line between two towns about 30 miles apart, Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawad to the west. Associated Press reporters at the scene said Qaddafi loyalists retook Bin Jawad, about 110 miles (160 kilometres) east of Qaddafi's hometown and stronghold of Sirte, which could prove to be a decisive battleground.
The reporters witnessed air attacks by helicopters on the rebel forces and heavy fighting on the ground. A warplane also attacked a small military base at Ras Lanouf and destroyed three hangars and a small building. Regime forces shelled rebel positions at Ras Lanouf with rockets and artillery. Ambulances sped toward the town and rebels moved trucks carrying multi-rocket launchers toward the front lines.
In Tripoli, the city of 2 million that is most firmly in Qaddafi's grip, residents were awoken before dawn by the crackle of unusually heavy and sustained gunfire that lasted for at least two hours. Some of the gunfire was heard around the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Qaddhafi lives, giving rise to speculation that there may have been some sort of internal fighting within the forces defending the Libyan leader inside his fortress-like barracks. Qaddafi's whereabouts were unknown.
The uprising that began on Feb. 15, inspired by rebellions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, has been sliding toward a civil war that could be prolonged, with rebels backed by mutinous army units and arms seized from storehouses going on the offensive to try to topple Qaddafi's 41-year-old regime. At the same time, pro-Qaddafi forces have tried to conduct counteroffensives to retake the oil port of Brega and in the rebel-held city of Zawiya west of Tripoli - where bloody street battles were reported over the weekend.
The US has moved military forces closer to Libya's shores to put military muscle behind its demand for Qaddafi to step down immediately. But Washington has expressed wariness about talk of imposing a "no fly" zone over the North African nation to prevent the Libyan leader from using his warplanes to attack the population.
At the same time, the UN has imposed sanctions, and Libya's oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest. The turmoil has caused oil prices to spike on international markets.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands have died in the violence with tight restrictions on media making it near impossible to get an accurate tally.
The rebels headquartered in the main eastern city of Benghazi have set up an interim governing council that is urging international airstrikes on Colonel Qaddafi's strongholds and forces.
The British defence secretary, Liam Fox, said otoday that a "small British diplomatic team" is in eastern Libya to try to talk to rebels. But he would not comment on a report that special forces soldiers were captured by Colonel Qaddafi opponents when a secret mission to put British diplomats in touch with leading rebels went awry.
The British foreign minister, William Hague, urged Qaddhafi to hand over power and put an "immediate stop" to the use of armed force against Libyans.
In Tripoli, Libyan authorities tried to explain the unusually heavy gunfire that erupted before dawn by saying it was a celebration of the regime taking back Ras Lanouf near the rebel-held east and the city of Misrata close to Tripoli.
Despite those claims, AP reporters saw ongoing battles still in progress in Ras Lanouf hours after the claim of victory and residents of Misrata said the city remained in opposition hands.
After the gunfire eased in the early morning, thousands of Colonel Qaddafi's supporters poured into Tripoli's central square for a rally, waving green flags, firing guns in the air, and holding up banners in support of the regime. Hundreds drove past Colonel Qaddafi's residence, waving flags and cheering. Armed men in plainclothes were standing at the gates, also shooting in the air.
Over the weekend, residents of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles (50 kilometres) west of Tripoli, said pro-Qaddafi forces stormed in to try to break the control of rebels over the area. Zawiya was the city closest to the capital held by the opposition.
Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Colonel Qaddafi's sons who commands it, had been massed outside Zawiya for days. Residents said on Saturday that a large number of tanks rolled into the city and many were killed and wounded in the counteroffensive.
Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Qaid, claimed on Saturday that "99 per cent" of Zawiya is under government control. The AP made repeated attempts to reach Zawiya residents by phone today, but the phones were turned off.
Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported that up to eight British special forces soldiers, armed but in plain clothes, were captured while escorting a junior British diplomat through rebel-held territory in eastern Libya. It said the special forces intervention angered Libyan opposition figures, who ordered the soldiers to be locked up on a military base.
The British defence secretary said his government was in touch with the team in Benghazi but told BBC radio it would be "inappropriate" to comment further. When pressed on whether the UK diplomatic team was in danger, Mr Fox reiterated that the government is in contact with the diplomatic team.
"It is a very difficult situation to be able to understand in detail," he said. "There are a number of different opposition groups to Colonel Qaddafi in Libya who do seem relatively disparate."
Mr Hague repeated the international community's demand for Colonel Qaddafi to step down.
"Given the continued levels of illegitimate violence within Libya we call upon Colonel Qaddafi to put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against the Libyan people," MrHague said in a statement. "He must hand over power without delay to a government which fully recognizes the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people," he added.
"The UK reiterates its support for the transition to a government that will deliver greater democracy, justice, transparency, human rights and accountability in Libya. We understand the desire of Libyans to enjoy the freedoms which have been denied to them for many years and support them in this endeavor," he said.