Libyan rebels claim victory in key oil terminal

AP News
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Posted: Aug 11, 2011 6:38 PM
Libyan rebels claim victory in key oil terminal

Libyan rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's troops along the country's Mediterranean coast said they captured a key oil terminal Thursday that has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.

Rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Rijali said he was with the fighters in Brega when they gained control of the strategic port city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi, after three weeks of intense fighting.

"Brega is liberated," al-Rijali told The Associated Press after nightfall.

Al-Rijali, who spoke over the telephone from nearby Ajdabiya, didn't provide any details or a casualty toll. His claim could not be immediately verified. Officials in the Libyan capital Tripoli made no comment on the rebel claim.

Brega fell under rebel control briefly in March, but was recaptured by Gadhafi's forces shortly afterward. The fighting around the city has gone back and forth since then, with the rebels not managing to keep their ground.

Brega's capture would be an important boost for the rebels because whoever controls the strategic oil terminal, which is also Libya's second-largest hydrocarbon complex, is in charge of the country's main oil fields.

Another rebel spokesman, Mohammed al-Zawawi, said earlier Thursday that two rebels died in the day's fighting in Brega, while 16 others were wounded.

Libya's civil war has been deadlocked for months despite NATO's airstrikes to protect civilians.

The revolt began in mid-February, with the rebels quickly wresting control of much of the eastern half of the country, as well as pockets in the west.

The conflict later settled into a stalemate with the rebels failing to budge the front lines in the east since April.

However, in recent weeks, rebels based in the western Nafusa mountains have made some gains, advancing toward Gadhafi-held towns along the coast.

On Thursday, hundreds of rebel fighters seized control of Nasser City, a small town about 16 miles (25 kilometer) south of the coastal town of Zawiya, after several hours of battle. Nasser City is the closest rebels have come to Tripoli, Gadhafi's main stronghold. Zawiya is just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the Libyan capital.

The streets of Nasser City were deserted and shops were shuttered, witnesses said. At one point, rebel fighters stopped at an abandoned gas station and filled up the tanks of their pickup trucks.

Video footage showed one rebel fighter climbing upon an earth mover to pull down a string of green pro-Gadhafi flags suspended from electricity poles. Another threw a green flag from a second floor balcony, replacing it with the rebels' tricolor. "Nasser City has been liberated," he shouted.

The rebels hope to first capture towns near Tripoli, before launching an offensive on the capital, commanders have said.

Two rebel fighters were killed and one wounded in the battle for Nasser City, said Mohammed Salem, a hospital medic in Zintan, a rebel-held town south of the front line.

Capturing both Brega or Zawiya would mark a significant gain in the Libyan rebels' goal to topple the Gadhafi regime.

"It will be a huge morale victory," said Fawzi Bukatef, a Brega rebel operations chief and head of the Coalition of Revolutionaries _ a large group of armed Libyan volunteers and civilians who fight at the front lines.

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Associated Press Writers Karin Laub in Zintan, Libya, and Hadeel al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this report.