Cairo/Tripoli, March 11 (IANS) Anti-government fighters were forced to withdraw from the oil-rich port city of Ras Lanuf after forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi launched a major offensive against the rebels, Al Jazeera reported Friday.
Pro- and anti-regime forces are locked in intense fighting for control of many other cities and towns along the coastline to the east of Tripoli, including Brega and Bin Jawad, as well as Az Zawiyah to the west of the capital.
Opposition forces in Ras Lanuf, the site of a key oil installation, are now retreating from their positions and heading further east after coming under intense mortar and rocket fire, the channel said.
Khalid al-Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, reiterated Thursday that it was “clear” that most anti-government protesters and fighters were members of Al Qaeda.
Gaddafi’s forces out-bombed and out-shot the opposition forces. There was sustained aerial and artillery and mortar bombardment, the report said, adding that there could be a number of casualties.
Libya has been witnessing massive anti-government protests since Feb 14. The protesters are demanding the ouster of Gaddafi, who has ruled the north African country for almost 42 years. According to an estimate, over 6,000 people have been killed in the political unrest.
Engineers at the town’s oil facilities have been burning off poisonous gas in case of a direct hit on the refinery, rebels say.
Officials confirmed that Ras Lanuf and Brega, another town with key oil installations, had come under attack from gunboats. Brega, a key oil and gas hub, was also under attack from the air.
According to the report, rebels in eastern city of Benghazi feel the tide “may be reversing”, and that there is a “realisation that this is going to be a long, long uprising”.
On Thursday, Gaddafi’s forces said they have wrested the city of Zawiyah from the hands of rebels, a claim denied by those fighting against the Libyan leader.
Any independent confirmation of the claims and counter-claims, however, is difficult as journalists are unable to reach the city.
The battles are raging as rebels have stepped up pressure on the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to cripple Gaddafi’s air force.
While several world powers have backed such a measure, the logistics are yet to be worked out with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying such a move should be driven by the UN and not America.
Meanwhile, NATO and the European Union began fresh talks on a no-fly zone Thursday, with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary-general, saying that “further planning will be required” if a no-fly zone were to be enforced under the UN’s mandate.
Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Thursday warned that Libya was in a state of “civil war”, and appealed for aid workers to be given greater access to the country.