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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rebels back with vengeance at key oil port near Tripoli -----unconfirmed news

By SARA GHASEMILEE
Al Arabiya with Agencies
Libyan rebels battled their way back into a major oil port just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli on Saturday, forcing Muammar Qaddafi’s troops to close the vital coast highway and key supply route from Tunisia.

The renewed rebel offensive marked a significant rebound for opposition forces who were crushed and driven out of the city nearly three months ago.


Rebels first took Zawiya in early March, but were brutally expelled less than two weeks later in an assault by members of an elite brigade commanded by Colonel Qaddafi’s son Khamis. That had left rebels with only tenuous footholds in Libya’s far west.

On Saturday, Guma el-Gamaty, a London-based spokesman for the rebels political leadership council, said opposition fighters had taken control of a large area on the western side of the city.

A rebel fighter who fled Zawiya at the end of March said “there are clashes inside Zawiya itself.” The rebel, who identified himself only as Kamal, said “the fighters are back in the city,” and that he had spoken with them.

Nearly three months of bombings by NATO against Libyan military targets have failed to unseat Colonel Qaddafi or enable the rebels to launch an offensive on his territory in Tripoli.

Several explosions were heard in Tripoli throughout the afternoon on Saturday, as late as 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), suggesting NATO was ramping up attacks after a quiet morning.

Libya TV reported that “the imperialist aggressors” had bombed several sites in and around the Libyan capital, in the town of Yafran, and then showed footage of what it said were children wounded in past NATO bombings. The station played violin music as it broadcast gruesome images.

While too early to mark a breakthrough in the stalemated civil war between Colonel Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels, who control roughly the eastern third of the country, an opposition offensive so near the capital was bound to put a formidble burden on Qaddafi forces.

They have been riddled by defections, badly hurt by ongoing UN-sanctioned NATO airstrikes and facing huge resupply problems as a result of the naval blockade that has clamped off ports. The international actions are designed to help the four-month-old rebel uprising to drive Colonel Qaddafi from nearly 40 years in power in the oil-rich North African country.

Apparently prompted by the Zawiya clashes Saturday, Libyan soldiers sealed off parts of a crucial coastal road leading from Tripoli west to the Tunisian border.

The coastal road is a key artery from neighboring Tunisia for delivery for food, fuel and medicine for the Qaddafi regime.

Shelling continued sporadically Saturday near the rebel-held port city of Misrata, where government forces hit towns on the western outskirts of the city, 125 miles (210 kilometers) east of Tripoli. More than 30 rebels were reported killed in government fire from tanks, artillery and incendiary rockets that rained down on Dafniya, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) west of Misrata.

Casualty figures came from a physician at Hikma Hospital in Misrata, who would only give his first name, Ayman. He said the shelling began Friday morning, intensified toward nightfall and continued periodically Saturday.

Misrata remained one of the most important rebel footholds in the Qaddafi controlled west. Government forces have the city surrounded on all sides but the north, where the city has access to the Mediterranean Sea for supplies and food through Libya’s major port. Rebels have beaten back several government attempts to retake the city.

And now Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are pushing back as rebel forces try to break the siege for an advance on Tripoli.

World powers have given mixed signals on how the war might play out, with Russia trying to mediate. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he had offered a “guarantee” to Colonel Qaddafi if he left Libya, but received no reply.

Colonel Qaddafi has refused to step down, describing the rebels as Al Qaeda terrorists and Western intervention as an oil grab.

As diplomacy falters, several new battlefronts have opened.

Colonel Qaddafi's forces also shelled for the first time the UNESCO world heritage-listed city of Ghadames, 370 miles (600 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, on the Tunisia and Algeria borders, overnight, opening a new front in the war, rebels said.

Rebels said the oasis town, with a population of about 7,000 people, mainly Berber, was under attack after an anti-government protest in the old Roman city on Wednesday.

“This is a retaliation for anti-regime protests,” spokesman Juma Ibrahim said from the rebel-held town of Zintan.

The report could not be independently verified.

The old town was de-populated by Colonel Qaddafi in the 1990s and its inhabitants moved into modern buildings. It was not clear if the attack hit the old town, a labyrinth of narrow, underground passages and houses known as the “Pearl of the Desert.”

Outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday some NATO allies of failing to pull their weight.

“The mightiest military alliance in history was only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country -- yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions,” he said.

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