By Mohammed Abbas and Alexander Dziadosz
RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's forces launched an intense bombardment around the eastern Libyan oil towns of Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Brega Thursday in a front line assault involving warplanes, tanks and ships.
Attacks on oil ports sent jitters through oil markets because of fears this could mark a new strategy by Gaddafi to target oil facilities, disrupt supplies from the OPEC producer and send world crude prices higher.
But so far there was no sign of a deliberate campaign to disrupt oil supplies more broadly or destroy oil infrastructure. Although Ras Lanuf and Brega have been attacked so far the facilities themselves have been spared. Es Sider has been hit.
Bombs or missiles landed a few km (miles) from Ras Lanuf oil refinery and close to a building of the Libyan Emirates Oil Refinery Company building near the front line in the east where rebels and government forces are fighting.
"One bomb landed on a civilian house in Ras Lanuf," rebel fighter Izeddine Sheikhy told Reuters. He said the bombardment seemed to have come from the direction of the sea.
"I saw ships yesterday and today. Missiles were being fired from them," said rebel fighter Mohd Fadl.
Reuters correspondents also saw an air strike from a plane over Ras Lanuf, about 590 km (370 miles) east of Tripoli. Witnesses said it struck near the town's eastern checkpoint. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Extending attacks deeper into rebel-held territory in the east of Libya, Gaddafi warplanes bombed the oil town of Brega on Thursday, rebels reported.
Brega has not been targeted for several days. The town is about 90 km (56 miles) east of Ras Lanuf. "There's just been an air strike on Brega -- two jets, two bombs," said rebel fighter Mohamed Othman, speaking by telephone.
OIL SALES BYPASS STATE FIRM
Hassan Bulifa, a member of the board of east Libya's Arabian Gulf Oil Co (Agoco), a unit of state oil firm National Oil Corp, told Reuters Agoco was arranging to market oil direct to foreign buyers instead of through its state-owned parent.
The front line has moved to-and-fro between Ras Lanuf and the strategic town of Bin Jawad, roughly 60 km (38 miles) west.
"I saw rockets coming from boats near Es Sider port," fighter Adel Yahya said, adding: "There are revolutionaries at Es Sider and close to Bin Jawad. Gaddafi forces are also on the outskirts of Bin Jawad, but on the western side."
Rebels, who have taken swathes of territory in the east and who are becoming better organized, have been stopped from taking the coastal road west to the prized target of Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown, by tanks and warplanes.
In the push from Libya's second city Benghazi, where the uprising started and where the rebels now have their headquarters, the rebel army of defectors and young volunteers captured the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf.
At the Ras Lanuf installation, engineers were burning off poisonous gas in case of a direct hit, said rebels, adding there were several near-misses Thursday. The gates were manned by guards and billowing smoke stacks showed it was functioning.
Workers at other refineries expressed concern about bombs being dropped on facilities and how much damage could be caused to the surrounding area.
Rebel fighters said Thursday they were based on the outskirts of Bin Jawad and near the oil complex of Es Sider, also known as Sidrah, which suffered a direct hit in Wednesday's fighting, sending black smoke and flames belching into the sky.
EXCHANGE OF ROCKET FIRE
That attack appeared to the be first on oil facilities, a move that has caused concern in the oil market which is already rattled by uprising which are shaking the Middle East.
Es Sider came under intense bombardment by government forces again Thursday and rebels said there was heavy fighting around Bin Jawad too. "Right now, there is a bloody fight ... between us and Gaddafi's mercenary force for Bin Jawad," said Salem Abdel Wahad, a 30-year-old rebel soldier.
"They are exchanging rocket fire at the front," Salem El-Burqy said, adding that Gaddafi's forces had tanks and warplanes, making it difficult for rebels to advance with their relatively light arms.
It was not possible to independently confirm the reports.
Rebels are frustrated a no-fly zone has not been imposed.
"We find one thing strange: the position of the United states. It's impossible that the U.S. would not have imposed a no-fly zone -- impossible -- unless they have some agreement with Gaddafi against the Libyan people," Wahad said.
CLERIC PRAYS FOR VICTORY
At the main entrance to Ras Lanuf, a cleric led prayers for 100 fighters. "May God aid us and our brothers in Zawiyah and Tripoli," he said, asking for help against the man who "orphaned children."
Rebels chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and fired anti-aircraft guns and rifles in the air when a plane was heard overhead shortly after the prayer ended.
Dr Gebril Hewadi of the Benghazi medical management committee told Reuters television Wednesday at least 400 people were killed in eastern Libya since clashes began there on February 17, with many corpses yet to be recovered from bomb sites.
Libyan state television broadcast what it said was a conversation between the U.S. ambassador, speaking in English through a translator, and Omar Hariri, military representative of the rebel National Libyan Council, whom it described as an "agent" and "lackey."
The ambassador asked how rebel headquarters could keep up regular contact with fighters, what contacts Hariri had with towns like Zawiyah and what forces he commanded. Hariri said he was in charge of forces in east Libya.
An American envoy left Cairo Thursday on a plane to Salum on Egypt's border with Libya, a Cairo airport official said. The official cited U.S. embassy staff as saying he would be following Libyan developments at first hand.
(Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Millership; editing by Philippa Fletcher)