Gaddafi launches counter-offensive on Libya rebels

March 7, 2011 - 0:0

TRIPOLI/RAS LANUF – Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched counter-offensives on three rebel-held towns on Sunday as the popular uprising escalated into open warfare.

The resilience of Gaddafi's forces in the face of the widespread insurrection and their ability to counter-attack will increase fears that Libya is heading for a protracted civil war rather than the swift revolutions seen in Tunisia and Egypt, Reuters reported.
Gaddafi's troops, backed by tanks, artillery, fighter jets and helicopters attacked the towns of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli, and the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, 660 km (410 miles) east of the capital.
Government spokesmen said Gaddafi's forces won a series of swift victories, but many of the towns remained in rebel hands, Reuters reporters at the scene and witnesses said.
Gaddafi loyalists were nevertheless jubilant over the reports and automatic gunfire reverberated around the capital.
“These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi,” spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, referring to Libya's rebel-controlled second largest city situated in the far east.
While Benghazi remained firmly in rebel hands, government troops pushed rebels out of the town of Bin Jawad which they had captured on Saturday, back to Ras Lanuf.
One fighter returning wounded to Ras Lanuf from the frontline was asked what he had seen. He replied: “Death.”
Rebels surrounded by Gaddafi troops near the center of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, faced another onslaught on Sunday after repelling two major assaults by tanks and infantry the day before.
“This morning, there was a new attack, bigger than yesterday. There were one and a half hours of fighting ... Two people were killed from our side and many more injured,” spokesman Youssef Shagan said by telephone.
“We are still in full control of the square. Now it is quiet,” he added.
Rebels deny government’s claims of victory
Earlier, thousands celebrated in Tripoli as state television channel Allibiya reported that government forces had taken control of the country's third city of Misrata, the key oil center of Ras Lanuf and even Tobruk near the Egyptian border.
AFP reporters in Ras Lanuf, taken by rebels early on Saturday, confirmed the town was still in opposition hands despite being hit by air strikes early Sunday.
But residents in Misrata said government tanks had begun shelling the town and warned of “carnage” if the international community did not intervene.
A rebel spokesman confirmed that Misrata was under intense fire from pro-Gaddafi forces and reported “casualties” but insisted the city was still in rebel hands.
“Kadhafi forces are shelling Misrata randomly. They are using mortars and rockets,” said the spokesman.
“They are firing on protesters gathered at Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square)” in the city centre and tanks are also shelling houses as well.”
A rebel officer, Colonel Bashir al-Moghrabi, told reporters in Ras Lanuf rebels were also still in control in Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, where fierce battles took place on Saturday.
A local doctor said Saturday there had been a “massacre” in Zawiyah and a Sky News journalist said Gaddafi's forces had fired on civilians.
A member of the rebel-appointed council in Tobruk, Fateh Faraj, contacted on Sunday by AFP, also said claims that that town had fallen were “not true.”
British troops seized
Britain's Sunday Times reported that rebels had seized a British SAS special forces unit of up to eight soldiers escorting a junior diplomat in eastern Libya on a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders.
The SAS intervention angered opposition figures who fear Gaddafi could use evidence of Western military intervention to sway patriotic support away from the uprising, according to the London paper.
“I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi. We are in touch with them, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further,” British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC.
Photo: Libyan rebels celebrate near an unexploded bomb that was dropped minutes before by a fighter jet at the gates of near the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 6, 2011. (Getty Images)