Battle in Libya for strategic town kills at least 13

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Battle in Libya for strategic town kills at least 13
Tripoli, Libya:  Col. Moammar el-Gaddafi's government struck hard at its opponents on Friday, waging fierce battles to wrest control of the town of Zawiya from rebel troops and firing on peaceful protesters after Friday prayers in Tripoli, witnesses said.

At least 13 people were reported dead, more than 100 wounded and 65 missing in Zawiya, 25 miles west of Tripoli. A government spokesman said the Gaddafi forces had retaken the city. "It is liberated this afternoon, and we are going to take you there tomorrow to see for yourself," he said. But several rebels reached by telephone in the evening said that, after considerable bloodshed near the east and west gates to the city, they still held the town.

One witness said the worst carnage occurred after Friday prayers, when a crowd of people decided to march on Tripoli. As they got to the gates, the witness said, the militias opened fire, killing at least a dozen and wounding at least 50.

"We need some help from another hospital because our hospital is too small for 50 people injured here, but the problem is transportation," this person said. "They shoot even the ambulances that carry the injured. I have seen by my own eyes an ambulance driver shot in the hand."

One witness called the shooting in Zawiya a massacre. "I cannot describe the enormity of the violence they are committing against us," he said by telephone, with bursts of gunfire audible in the background. "We want our country to be free."

Opposition sources confirmed the death of Col. Hussein Darbouk, a senior Libyan officer who defected and was commanding the rebel forces, in the fighting.

Government troops and rebels engaged in a fierce, day-long battle for control of the eastern town of Ras Lanuf, witnesses said, with thudding explosions heard on the road north of town. All day long, trucks mounted with guns and swarming with rebel fighters raced from the city of Brega, about 25 miles to the east, to the front, where they confronted fire from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The wounded kept arriving into the night at the hospital in Brega, witnesses said.

There were unconfirmed reports of a fire at an oil refinery in Zewietina, a town north of Ajdabiya in the same eastern coastal region, and Libyan warplanes bombed an arms depot outside Benghazi, the country's second largest city, a rebel spokesman told Reuters.

In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi's forces opened fire on Friday with tear gas and what a witness described as live ammunition to scatter protesters who gathered after noon prayers outside a mosque in a restive neighborhood of the city, chanting slogans and defying the authorities' attempt to lock down the capital.

Young demonstrators hurled rocks at the militia forces cruising the Tajura neighborhood in blue trucks, but the crackle of fire from what sounded like automatic weapons panicked the protesters and they fled in several directions.

"Everyone was supposed to retreat to the mosque, but they are scared of the killing because they are using bullets," a doctor in the main Tajura mosque said as some protesters scrambled for cover there. Two people were injured, he said. Witnesses said the militia fired AK-47 assault rifles.

Amnesty International reported that pro-Gaddafi forces had fired on a medical team near the town of Misuratah, wounding two medics who were trying to retrieve a body. "This disturbing assault indicates that pro-Gaddafi forces are prepared to use lethal force indiscriminately even against those whose role it is to care for the wounded and pick up the dead," the organization said in a statement.

Initially, worshipers in Tajura said they planned to display their opposition to Colonel Gaddafi from inside the mosque, staging a sit-in after the noon prayers that have become a flash point for demonstrations in the uprisings spreading across the Arab world.

But, as prayers ended, thousands of protesters -- mainly men -- lofted the pre-Gaddafi flag that has become the emblem of the rebellion and began milling in a courtyard outside, shouting slogans such as "Free, free Libya," "Tajura will bury you" and "The people want to bring down the regime" -- a rallying cry in many parts of the Arab world. The mosque had been packed and many more people prayed in a courtyard outside.

The protest soon thinned out, reflecting a pervasive fear of reprisals, and only several hundred demonstrators remained, keeping close to the mosque itself. But as they chanted slogans, the pro-Gaddafi militia arrived to disperse them and they broke up into several groups.

Before the Friday noon prayers, witnesses in some neighborhoods of Tripoli said roadblocks backed by armored vehicles and tanks had been set up while official minders ordered foreign journalists not to leave the hotel where they have been told to stay by the authorities.

The government's measures came against the backdrop of a state of terror that has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt. Residents on Thursday reported constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week's protest. Some said secret policemen had been offering money for information about the identities and whereabouts of anti-Gaddafi protesters.

As rebel fighters in the country's east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Colonel Gaddafi's loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

The measures against foreign reporters reflected a deep animosity despite the government's decision to invite 130 journalists to Tripoli. In a rambling, three-hour speech to loyalists on Wednesday, Colonel Gaddafi said: "Libya doesn't like foreign correspondents. They shouldn't even know about the weather forecasts in Libya, because we are suspicious."

Even in what pass for normal times, Libya severely restricts visas for foreign reporters, issuing them only when the authorities wish to hold some important event offering tribute to Colonel Gaddafi.

But some protesters on Friday said they had been emboldened by the presence of foreign camera crews and journalists who eluded the authorities' attempt to pen them in. But the pro-Gaddafi militia opened fire even though British television crews were filming the episode.

"We are brave, huh?" a protester had said without offering his name. "If Gaddafi brings weapons we will die. But we are confident in ourselves and our cause."

Worshipers said rebel leaders in Benghazi, the eastern stronghold of the uprising, had sent word urging protesters to remain inside mosques for sit-ins after noon prayers, but that instruction seemed to have been ignored in Tajura, at least.

Referring to an interview in which Colonel Gaddafi said all Libyans loved him, a worshiper said the aim of the sit-ins was "to show the number of people who hate Gaddafi." A resident of Tajura reached by telephone said one slogan on Friday declared: "You say we love you, but we don't."

The demonstrations on Friday demonstrated just how effectively the government's ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.

"I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them," one resident said. "It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes."

Several people in the two neighborhoods, Feshloom and Tajura, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of Colonel Gaddafi's secret police, said militias loyal to the colonel were using photos taken at last week's protest to track down the men involved. "They know that there are people who have energy and who are willing to die, so they pick them up," another resident said.

Residents of Feshloom showed reporters cellphone photographs taken at Tripoli Central Hospital of a large wound in the chest of a neighbor, Nagi Ali el-Nafishi, 56, and they pointed out a bloodstain on the concrete where he had been shot after leaving a mosque last Friday. A doctor who examined him told reporters that the bullet had exploded his heart and lungs, causing him to die of blood loss within minutes.

Several residents said at least four people from their neighborhood had been killed that day, including Hisham el-Trabelsi, 19, who they said was shot in the head, and Abdel Basit Ismail, 25, who they said was hit by random gunfire while she was calling to a relative involved in the protest.

They also reported the discovery of the body of at least one man, Salem Bashir al-Osta, a 37-year-old teacher who disappeared at a protest last Sunday. It was found near the Abu Slim prison, showing signs of a severe beating but no bullet holes.

And in both neighborhoods, both hotbeds of resistance, residents say disappearances have continued all week as the security forces appear to be rounding up suspected protesters in anticipation of Friday Prayer services, the customary gathering time for street protests across the Arab world.

President Obama on Thursday issued his strongest call yet for Colonel Gaddafi to step down, saying he had lost all his legitimacy as a leader and that "the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people."

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