By Mohammed Abbas
NEAR RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) - Heavily armed rebels clashed with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on Friday on the outskirts of the key oil terminal of Ras Lanuf as the head of Libya's rebel council vowed "victory or death."
The rebels were attacking a military base on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, a major oil port on the Mediterranean Sea, which has a refinery, pipelines and a terminal, and the army responded with artillery fire and helicopters firing machineguns.
Rebels said they had captured the airport and intended to push forward toward the military base after dark.
"There's been rockets and missiles from us targeting a military base which is there to protect the Ras Lanuf oil terminal," armed rebel Adel Yahya told Reuters, adding:
"This is outside Ras Lanuf itself."
Flashes, thuds and bangs resounded from the battlefield, along with wailing sirens and puffs of smoke in the air.
Rebels with heavy artillery were streaming to the front line, backed by anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks and anti-tank guns. It was not clear if there had been any casualties in the exchange of fire.
Rebel forces, who were about 10 km (six miles) from Ras Lanuf, had been firing for at least one hour toward the base and the army had been defending the position. As dark fell the firing died down as rebels prepared their assault on the base.
Earlier, rebels fired their rifles at helicopters overhead which used machineguns on the rebel positions. A helicopter launched a missile which failed to explode.
Ras Lanuf lies about 660 km (410 miles) east of Tripoli.
As the battle raged, fighters chanted: "Where is Obama! We want a no-fly zone!," referring to the imposition of a no-fly zone which is being considered by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama among other options for Libya.
"The first aim is to take the military base at the oil terminal," said Mohamed Mughrabi, a rebel.
"There has still been no decisive turn in the battle," said Ahmed Jabreel, aide to Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council.
As rebels forces engaged the army at Ras Lanuf, Abdel Jalil told followers in the eastern town of Al Bayda:
"We are people who fight, we don't surrender. Victory or death. We will not stop till we liberate all this country ... The time of hypocrisy is over."
The crowd chanted: "Libya is free and Gaddafi must go."
"OLD REGIME IS OVER"
Abdel Jalil, an ex-justice minister, told cheering crowds: "There could be members of the old regime here among us. Your enemy can still put his people among you. Don't listen to them and let them ruin our revolution."
Asked by Reuters what the council would do next, he said: "We will send a message to the West and to all peoples that this is going to be a democratic country."
On what he wanted from the international community, Abdel Jalil said: "To help protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi's assault and help put an end to it."
He also said he wanted a no-fly zone.
The red, black and green flag, adopted by the rebels, waved from buildings and men carrying rifles were posted on roofs and next to the crowd, who were peaceful, enthusiastic and defiant.
Earlier, defiant rebels had vowed to march on Tripoli.
"We're going to take it all, Ras Lanuf, Tripoli," Magdi Mohammed, an army defector, fingering the pin of a grenade, told Reuters at a rebel checkpoint on the road to Ras Lanuf.
At the western gate of the town of Ajdabiyah, dozens of pick- up trucks loaded with men armed with rifles, rocket launchers and machineguns streamed through to reinforce Ras Lanuf.
They shouted "Allahu Akbar" and shot into the air. Those at the gate clapped and cheered as they passed. "The People's Army" and "Revolution of February 17" were spray painted on the sides of many trucks in Arabic.
"INTO THE DESERT"
Rebel units on their way to Ras Lanuf took to the desert to get away from the coastal road after the intervention of their commander who said staying on the strategic route was dangerous.
"We've fanned out in the desert because this dog Gaddafi has desert cars and fighter planes. It's harder for them to see us in the desert," said Adel Al Imami, a former officer with Gaddafi's brigades, now with the February 17 Martyrs Brigade.
Youths randomly fired guns in the air, and tore around in four-wheel-drive trucks, spray painted with slogans or the word "ARMY." Many had grenades and combat knives strapped to them.
Earlier on Friday, a Libyan warplane bombed just beyond the walls of a military base used to store huge amounts of ammunition and now held by rebels in the eastern town of Ajdabiyah but did not hit it.
Elsewhere in Libya, at the sermon in the main mosque at the oil town of Brega, Friday prayers focused on national unity and refuted tribalism. Worshippers said they rejected a divided nation comprising a free east and a Gaddafi west.
At the entrance to the courthouse in Libya's second city of Benghazi, guards placed at the entrance a rug carrying the image of Gaddafi as a uniformed young man. It was rainy and people used the mat to wipe their muddy feet.
(Reporting by Mohamed Abbas, Tom Pfeiffer and Alex Dziadosz, Writing by Peter Millership in Cairo; Editing by Michael Roddy)