Libya stages air strikes, bombards east rebels

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:44 PM

By Alexander Dziadosz

RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's forces attacked rebels on the eastern front line with tanks, rockets and warplanes on Tuesday, said rebels who complained they could not match the Libyan leader's heavy firepower.

"People are dying out there. Gaddafi's forces have rockets and tanks," Abdel Salem Mohamed, 21, told Reuters, returning to the oil port of Ras Lanuf from the front as casualties mounted.

"You see this? This is no good," he said, gesturing to a light machinegun he was carrying.

Rebel fighters are armed with heavy machineguns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank and aircraft weapons, often mounted on 4x4 pick-up trucks, no match for Gaddafi's warplanes and heavy amour.

The battlefield has become mired in attack and counter-attack in a buffer zone of barren desert and scrub between east and west Libya.

Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas said: "I have moved on toward the front line. I can confirm rebels are coming under heavy bombardment."

Al Jazeera reported clashes at Bin Jawad, west of Ras Lanuf, saying rebels were advancing under heavy fire and that Gaddafi's forces had launched a barrage of missiles against Ras Lanuf.

Rebels, who have set their sights on Gaddafi's reinforced hometown of Sirte further west, said government forces had dug in their tanks near Bin Jawad.

The two towns, which are lose to major oil export terminals, are 60 km (40 miles) apart on a strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean that leads to Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli.

One doctor told Al Jazeera from Ras Lanuf casualties were pouring in, and the hospital was too poorly equipped to treat all the injured. Awad Al Goweiry said they could only treat five patients at a time.

"Medical supplies are extremely limited. The only people who have come to our aid are the Arab Doctors Union. This is a simple, village hospital, that is totally unprepared for this. We are asking for urgent help."

This Reuters correspondent earlier saw three wounded men in Ras Lanuf hospital. Staff said they had come from fighting near Bin Jawad, which government forces had recaptured.

No one was immediately able to confirm the total number of wounded who had arrived during the day. There had been no reports of deaths from Tuesday's fighting.

WARPLANES STRIKE

Libyan warplanes earlier on Tuesday launched at least four air strikes on Ras Lanuf. At least one hit a residential area.

"An air strike hit a house in a residential area of Ras Lanuf. There is a big hole in the ground floor of the two-storey home," one witness said. "A massive plume of smoke and dust flew up in the area from the strike. Men rushed to the area shouting 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greatest)."

Many homes, including the one hit, appeared to be empty.

One of the first air strikes struck near a rebel checkpoint close to a residential district, shattering a water supply pipe.

Mustafa Askat, an oil worker who was at the site, said: "Yes I saw it, it was at 11 this morning." He said the attack would affect water supplies to the city. "We have a hospital inside, we have sick people and they need water urgently," he said.

Rebels fired at the aircraft, chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans. One mimicked a line from one of his recent speeches in which he urged Libyans to defend against terrorists in their midst: "Alley to alley, house to house, oh Muammar, you donkey!"

Hundreds of people have died in the uprising that started in mid-February and some countries are pushing to impose a no-fly zone that would keep Gaddafi's warplanes and attack helicopters grounded and remove his advantage of controlling the air space.

With the euphoria of their rapid advance dampened by the government forces' counter-attack and subsequent impasse, rebels were less inclined to pose for pictures and talk to reporters.

"We can't give you information because we'll be targeted by jets," said Hatem Firjani. "If I tell you our forces are 3 km ahead, we'll get bombed 3 km ahead," said fighter Moh'd Faituri.

Asked if the revolutionary forces had given up hope to prevail militarily, Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council, told a news conference in Benghazi:

"We already prevailed and we will complete our victory when we are afforded a no-fly zone. If there was also action to stop him (Gaddafi) from recruiting mercenaries, his end would come within hours."

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Millership in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood)