Muammar Gaddafi’s forces attacked rebels on the eastern front-line with tanks, rockets and warplanes, said rebels who complained they could not match the Libyan leader’s heavy fire-power.
“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.
“You see this? This is no good,” he said, gesturing to a light machine gun he carried.
Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas said: “I have moved on towards the front line. I can confirm rebels are coming under heavy bombardment.”
Rebels are also armed with heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank and aircraft weapons, often mounted on 4×4 pick-up trucks. But Gaddafi has deployed warplanes and heavy armour against his rivals.
Al Jazeera earlier reported Gaddafi’s forces had launched a barrage of missiles against Ras Lanuf.
This Reuters correspondent saw three wounded men in the Ras Lanuf hospital. Staff said they had come from fighting near the town of Bin Jawad, which government forces have 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.
Libyan warplanes earlier on Tuesday launched at least four air strikes on Ras Lanuf as the two sides faced off across a new front line close to major oil export terminals.
The battlefield has become mired in attack and counter-attack between the loose-knit rebel army of young volunteers and defectors, and Libya’s army in a buffer zone of barren desert and scrub between east and west.
Rebels had fortified their positions and stocked up with ammunition and food while reconnaissance teams from both sides assessed each other with binoculars. Rebel forces had staged a number of forward attacks.
Their agility, often fairly chaotic at the front, has given them a degree of protection from Gaddafi’s forces, who have proved more effective at quashing the rebellion in the west around the Libyan leader’s Tripoli powerbase.
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.”
There were four air strikes, one hitting a residential area, on Ras Lanuf following similar attacks the previous day. No casualties were reported.
“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 evacuated. Families fled the oil town and rebels moved their weapons into the desert due to fears of a government forces ground attack.
Asked whether revolutionary forces would accept any offer of U.S. arms, Ghoga said:
“Our slogan was the downfall of the oppressive regime. When the regime confronted the youth with live ammunition it was only natural for them to defend themselves. We still consider our revolution a peaceful one. The youth are defending themselves and the revolution.”
Libyan rebels rejected overtures by a representative of Gaddafi to negotiate his exit as his grip on power is increasingly challenged. The Tripoli government said talk of such negotiations was “nonsense”.
Officials at rebel headquarters, based in Libya’s second city of Benghazi where the uprising against Gaddafi began, said there had been talks about Gaddafi stepping down.
“I confirm that we received contact from a Gaddafi representative seeking to negotiate Gaddafi’s exit. We rejected this,” a media officer for the rebel Libyan National Council, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters.
“It’s over, we won’t negotiate with him at all. I think he has no other way. He has to die or find a place to go. It’s either us or him. We don’t have anything to negotiate about,” said Iman Bugaigis, a revolutionary official in Benghazi.
Ghoga said: “Nobody including the Council has the right to forfeit bringing Gaddafi to a court except the families of his victims.”
In defiant speeches, Gaddafi has vowed to fight on and has said he will never leave Libya and end his 41-year-old rule.
SET ON SIRTE
Rebels, who have set their sights on Gaddafi’s reinforced hometown of Sirte further west, said government forces had dug in their tanks near the town of Bin Jawad while rebels had retreated to Ras Lanuf and set up a forward checkpoint.
The two towns are about 60 km (40 miles) apart on the strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean that leads to Gaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli.
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 halted 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 rebel fighter Hatem Firjani. “If I tell you our forces are 3 km ahead, we’ll get bombed 3 km ahead,” said fighter Moh’d Faituri.
Oil sources said on Monday that Ras Lanuf and Brega ports were not working due to the military activity. Reuters