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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rebels retreat Ras Lanuf

Rebel forces retreat from Ras Lanuf
Rebel fighters fall back from oil town under rocket fire and aerial assault as Gaddafi loyalists launch major offensive.
Last Modified: 10 Mar 2011 20:26 GMT
During clashes on March 9, government forces bombed a natural gas installation in Ras Lanuf [GALLO/GETTY]
Opposition fighters have been forced to withdraw from the central port city of Ras Lanuf as forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi launched a major offensive against rebels fighting to end the Libyan leader's decades-long rule.
Pro- and anti-government forces are locked in intense fighting for control of several other cities and towns along the coastline to the east of Tripoli, including Brega and Bin Jawad, as well as in Az Zawiyah to the west of the capital.
Rebel forces in the port city of Ras Lanuf, which is the site of a key oil installation, are now retreating from their positions and heading further east.
Opposition fighters were seen trooping into cars and trucks by the hundreds and fleeing eastwards, after coming under intense mortar and rocket fire, as well as aerial bombardment earlier in the day. Pro-Gaddafi forces hit a natural gas installation, as well as bombing a civilian house and the area around a hospital, opposition forces said.
In an interview with Reuters news agency, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam said the time had come for full scale military action against the rebels. "There is no more chance for negotiations with rebels fighting the Libyan government," he said on Thursday. He said the military would never give up, that they will fight in Libya and die in Libya.
In a press conference late on Thursday, Khalid al-Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister, reiterated that it was "clear" that most anti-government protesters and fighters were members of al-Qaeda.

Major offensive underway
"We've been wondering for the last few days about why Gaddafi has not employed his full forces, and today we've seen those forces in action," reported Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley, who is in Ras Lanuf.
Flashpoint cities in Libya
"We were caught right in the middle as his forces out-flanked, and then out-bombed and out-shot the opposition forces. There was sustained aerial and artillery and mortar bombardment, and then following in by a flanking movement.
"There have been a number of casualties. We've seen trucks going along the highway, but that's being shelled by Gaddafi forces all the way along. I counted ... 50 shells falling.
"We've seen trucks with wounded lying in the back of pick-ups, and I think the casualty toll is going to be high. We also saw and heard extensive ground fire coming from the beach [in the north], we think there's been a flanking movement from the beach. "But it seems like the major offensive that we thought was going to happen is underway now." Birtley reported that while many opposition fighters had now left the town, a "hard core" was going back to fight.He said the attack showed the "professionalism of Gaddafi's troops, and it shows that ... he's hitting back." Engineers at the town's oil facilities have been burning off poisonous gas in case of a direct hit on the refinery, rebels say. "We've been defeated. They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf," a rebel fighter, dressed in military fatigues who gave his name as Osama, told the AFP news agency. "The town of Ras Lanuf has been purged of armed gangs and the green flags have been hoisted over all [government] buildings," Libyan state television reported on Thursday evening. The report said that government forces were "advancing on Benghazi".

Rebel confidence low
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya's leader, has
warned that the government will be launching
a full-scale military offensive [Reuters]
Hoda Abdel-Hamid, our correspondent in Benghazi, reported that officials confirmed that Ras Lanuf and Brega, another town with key oil installations, had come under attack from gunboats. Brega, a key oil and gas hub, was also under attack from the air. She reported that rebels in Benghazi feel the tide "may be reversing", and that there is a "realisation that this is going to be a long, long uprising". Gaddafi's men also pounded Az Zawiyah with tanks and war planes.
"The revolutionaries control the centre of Zawiyah and Gadhafi's forces are surrounding it. It's 50-50," a resident who fled the city said. "There was no one in the streets, the town is completely deserted, and there are snipers on the roofs," he said, adding that he did not know which side they were on. An official at one of Libya's largest refineries, which is located in Zawiyah, said it has remained shut for the fourth consecutive day, and would only reopen on Friday if there was no fighting overnight.

Conflicting claims
Forces loyal to Gaddafi say they have wrested the city from the hands of rebels, a claim denied by those fighting against the Libyan leader. Any independent confirmation of the claims and counter-claims, however, is difficult since journalists are unable to reach the city. The rebel fighters are largely inexperienced. Abdul Razik Bubakar, 32, car mechanic who has joined anti-Gaddafi forces, told the AP news agency that he is learning how to use anti-aircraft gun on the fly. "I didn't know anything about it. I just learnt in two or three days. Now I know how to use it, thanks to God. Now I am really quick using it, cleaning it and fixing it," said Bubakar.
Read more of our Libya coverage
"Maybe I don't have enough knowledge for this, but when I do it, thanks to God, it works out."
The battles are raging as rebels pile on pressure on the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to cripple Gaddafi's air force. While several world powers have backed such a measure, the logistics are yet to be worked out with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, saying such a move should be driven by the United Nations and not the United States. NATO and the European Union began fresh talks on a no-fly zone on Thursday, with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary-general, saying that "further planning will be required" if a no-fly zone were to be enforced, under the UN's mandate. Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on Thursday warned that Libya was in a state of "civil war", and appealed for aid workers to be given greater access to the country. Amid such discussions, Gaddafi has launched his own diplomatic effort, sending emissaries to Brussels and Cairo. Opposition forces vowed to continue fighting against Gaddafi, even if a no-fly zone was not imposed. "If they implement a no-fly zone we will ask for other things. Even if they do not implement it, we will fight," Iman Bugaigis, a media officer with the rebel February 17 Coalition, told reporters in Benghazi. "There is no return for us. This nation will not bear both of us. It is us or his (Gaddafi's) family. After what happened in Zawiyah, how can we live with this person?" she said.

Journalists tortured
Meanwhile, Britain has condemned the arrest and torture of three BBC journalists in Libya, saying it was more proof of atrocities committed by Gaddafi's regime.The three were subjected to mock execution after being arrested on Monday at a checkpoint nearly 10km south of Az-Zawiyah. The three men were then taken to a military barracks in Tripoli where they "suffered repeated assaults" by members of Libya's army and secret police before being released 21 hours later. One of the reporters said he had seen 10 or 12 men from Az Zawiyah in a prison cell who were "badly beaten", bearing signs of "torture on their faces and their bodies". Cameraman Goktay Koraltan said he "heard a lot of screaming" where he was being held. "... I've seen a lot of bad stuff," he said. Two more journalists were reported missing on Thursday by their UK- and Brazil-based newspapers, though state authorities said that one of them was to be released shortly. The Libyan government has restricted the movements of foreign journalists based in Tripoli and says they must only travel with official escorts.

Meanwhile, scuffles were reported at a transit camp in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, for thousands of stranded migrant workers from Libya. Tunisian troops pushed back hundreds of angry labourers from Bangladesh who tried to force their way into a UN storage facility. They said they were not being given enough to eat, and were not being repatriated fast enough.