Libyan government presses assault in East and West

Libyan government presses assault in East and West
Ras Lanuf, Libya:  Forces loyal to Colonel Moammar el-Gaddafi continued their onslaught on both the eastern and western fronts on Tuesday, with warplanes renewing airstrikes here after taunting rebels with flyovers and bombing runs near this coastal city's oil refinery.

The air attacks, which wounded a family of five on Monday, came amid reports of a possible peace offer from the Gaddafi camp, and growing debate in Western capitals about imposing a no-flight zone over Libya.

Some rebel leaders said on Monday that under a plan brought to them by government officials they did not name that Colonel Gaddafi would step down in return for safe passage out of the country for him and his family. But their account was denied by both the government and the head of the opposition's Provisional Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil.

"In reality there is no such proposal," Mr. Jalil said. There is no official liaison who was contacted about this proposal. At the moment, there is no initiative whatever with this regime."

The deputy head of the council reported that there had been "dozens" of deaths in fighting on Tuesday in Zawiyah, the rebel-held western city only 30 miles from Tripoli that has been the site of fierce fighting over the past several days. "Some bodies have not been able to be cleared off the streets in order to be buried," said the official, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga.

In an interview with the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya on Monday night, Col. Moammar el-Gaddafi's son Saadi said his father's departure would trigger an intratribal civil war.

"There are hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions, who all support the leader, and all of them are armed tribes," Saadi el-Gaddafi said. "If something happens to the leader or steps down, who will control these tribes then? This means that an unmerciful civil war will take place."

He added: "Under the current circumstances and given domestic and foreign threats, if the leader steps down or if these tribes decide to disobey the leader, each one will act on its own, and we will face a civil war like in Somalia or Afghanistan."

Rebel fighters said there had been two bombing raids on Tuesday, one of them hitting an unoccupied house on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf. At roadblocks east and west of the town, where the warplanes drew ferocious barrages of ground fire, reporters saw fewer rebels in position than on Monday, but it was unclear whether they had withdrawn because of the air attacks.

Rebel fighters seemed to be taking up positions inside Ras Lanuf, particularly on its western flank, as if preparing to confront an incursion by loyalist forces or for a new drive toward them. But it remained uncertain what the loyalist troops planned after taking the town of Bin Jawwad just to the west of here on Sunday, pushing the rebels back to Ras Lanuf.

The bombing runs began on Monday morning, sending huge plumes of smoke into the air around 10 a.m. With every roar of a jet engine, the rebels opened fire with what sounded like every weapon available, from heavy artillery to pistols. In the evening, a warplane swooped low and twice dropped bombs near a heavily defended rebel checkpoint, striking a car carrying the family and sending rebel fighters fleeing for cover in chaotic scenes.

There were conflicting reports about the casualties after the airstrikes. Witnesses had said a man died when the car was hit, but doctors at a local hospital said the man, along with four relatives, survived.

The steady attacks from the air helped further turn the momentum of the conflict in eastern Libya, where opposition fighters had made strong gains recently in their drive to the west, toward Surt, a stronghold of Colonel Gaddafi, and on to Tripoli. But on Sunday, troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi stormed the town of Bin Jawwad, just to the west of Ras Lanuf, backed by fierce air power, and sent the fighters holding it into retreat.

Those troops remained on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Monday evening, taking no immediate steps to try to recapture it or its strategic refinery from the rebels, who took control three days ago in their westward push.

In addition, the elite Khamis Brigade continued on Monday to batter the opposition-held city of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, with tanks, artillery and snipers, residents there said. With cellphone and Internet communications cut off, virtually the only source of information on events there was a lone reporter for Sky TV, a British television channel. She said the heavily armed government troops attacked in the morning and inexplicably withdrew after several hours, even though their tanks seemed to have taken control of the city's central square.

Government forces also attacked the rebel-held city of Misurata, Libya's third largest, which lies about 100 miles east of Tripoli.

The rebels have rejected any foreign invasion of the country but would welcome a no-fly zone, saying they can handle Colonel Gaddafi's soldiers, tanks and rockets, but not his warplanes and helicopter gunships. On Monday, Britain and France said they would seek United Nations authority for a no-fly zone, but Russia, which holds veto power, has already rejected any form of military intervention.

The United States ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, said the organization had established 24-hour surveillance of Libya with Awacs reconnaissance aircraft.

In Tripoli, the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, held an extraordinary news conference in which he accused the United States and Britain of "yearning for the colonial era" and seeking to divide the country. Continuing the government's string of improbable claims, he maintained that a force of about 300 Qaeda fighters formerly held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay was backing rebel forces.

"They are now fighting in eastern Libya. Their methods and approaches are clear," Mr. Koussa said. "When they were released, they started moving again, and they have taken weapons."

Mr. Koussa also became the first government official to admit that the government was meeting resistance in Zawiyah. But whereas news reports and interviews with residents have described a grim, large-scale battle, he said the violence was caused by a group of 30 to 35 rebels who were "hiding in the streets."

The correspondent for Sky News -- the only news organization present in Zawiyah for the height of the battle on Friday -- reported Monday in a British newspaper on what appeared to be a massacre there. She said she had seen government snipers killing residents at a funeral, a column of 25 tanks shelling the town for three hours and a young rebel boy learning how to fire a rocket-propelled grenade in defense. The correspondent, Alex Crawford, said government forces had shot at an ambulance she was riding in.

In a second attack Saturday morning, Ms. Crawford reported that government soldiers were firing randomly into buildings. "There were horrific injuries," she wrote. "A boy of 10 was hit by several bullets outside his house. One young man came in with an antitank grenade in his thigh, the fins sticking out. He was still conscious."

She added: "An hour later, we saw the military column racing away -- another attack had been beaten off. It was the third in two days. When we left, there were eight tanks destroyed or captured, and the rebels still held the center."

The streets of Ras Lanuf were quiet on Monday, troubled only by cars and minivans filled with families leaving the city, including many foreign workers.

On a grassy hill overlooking the sea, teenagers -- volunteers from Benghazi -- placed branches around an antiaircraft gun as a young rebel soldier watched. Hamed Sardina, a retired harbormaster, drank tea with a friend next to the gun and said he was not planning to leave. "We're here to defend the area," he said, pointing to the white houses across the street. And in case the fighting became too fierce, he owns a few boats, he said.

Nearby, opposition soldiers replaced the staff at the city's main hotel on Monday morning. In a cafe with a view of the sea, a rebel fighter tried, in vain, to prepare a cappuccino. His comrades commandeered smart-looking rooms where they could shower and watch the news on television. Outside, a young rebel from the town of al-Marja, in eastern Libya, watched the scene inside.

"We are the richest country, and we have the poorest people," he said.

At an intersection at the entrance to the town, rebel fighters with itchy fingers manned antiaircraft guns, firing them sporadically all day, then furiously when they heard the airplanes. Filipino workers wheeling suitcases walked past young men napping in cars and a man making tuna sandwiches for the fighters. On the road east, graffiti on a wall, not far from the site of an airstrike, said: "Army of the People."

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