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Gaddafi forces advance to rebel oil port

07 March 2011, 14:21

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Ras Lanuf - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi advanced on the rebel-held oil port of Ras Lanuf on Monday in a counter-attack that forced residents to flee and rebels to hide their weapons in the desert.

The Libyan army was moving east down the strategic Mediterranean coastal road from the recaptured town of Bin Jawad, heading towards Ras Lanuf which is about 60km away and which has a major oil complex, witnesses told Reuters.

A Reuters correspondent had seen Gaddafi's forces about 5km east of Bin Jawad on Sunday evening, suggesting the Libyan leader's troops were making slow but steady progress.

"I went to Bin Jawad and about 20km beforehand I saw Gaddafi forces, a large truck and army vehicles, and a fighter jet, they were coming slowly in this direction," Ahmed al-Araibi, a driver, told Reuters.

"I saw army trucks ahead, I was about 20km away (from Bin Jawad)," said Khalifa Saad, another driver. While another witness said there were several trucks heading to Ras Lanuf.

A Libyan warplane screeched over the rebels in Ras Lanuf, sending them into a frenzy of firing at it, shouting: "Allahu Akbar! (God is greatest)"

Withering fire

Looking on, one resident said: "I believe these youths are ready to die, but they won't make a difference. Look at the way they're firing at the plane. They have no experience."

Another resident told rebels to go home and not bring fighting close to the oil terminals. A Reuters witness saw no more than 200 or so rebels in Ras Lanuf but it was not clear how many more were in the immediate surrounding area.

The taking of Ras Lanuf had represented a major victory for the rebels on Friday but their advance towards Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on the road to Tripoli was stopped in its tracks at Bin Jawad where rebels retreated under withering fire.

The rebels had punched through government forces in the oil producing towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, then Bin Jawad and al-Nawfaliyeh on their way west to Sirte, a Gaddafi stronghold, when they made the mistake of leaving Bin Jawad undefended.

Government forces had slipped into the town at night and lain in wait for the rebels, who on Sunday were ambushed and could not regain the territory despite hours of fighting.

It was still unclear whether rebels still held al-Nawfaliyah.

Visibly agitated

Reporters evacuated Ras Lanuf's main hotel before dawn on Monday after staff warned they could not guarantee their safety, and came across only a small number of visibly agitated rebels at two checkpoints en route out of the oil port to the east.

Some reporters returned, but hotel staff had not. A rebel soldier with a rifle on his shoulder served coffee to guests.

"We heard our positions would be bombed, so we took our weapons away," one rebel told Reuters on the dusty, windswept highway. Another said: "We took them out into the desert."

A third rebel said the insurgents were redeploying into the desert to prepare for an attempt to wrest back Bin Jawad.

The night before, rebel commanders had been seen seated in the Ras Lanuf hotel lobby with a big sheet of paper on which red arrows were pointing in various directions, planning a military operation of some kind.

Human shields

But rebels at the checkpoints were nervous rather than confident as before, saying families were fleeing Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad to get out of possible harm's way.

"We are leaving simply because it will be safer," said the head of one family in a car stuffed with household belongings.

Some rebels accused Gaddafi's forces of using the local population of Bin Jawad as human shields in the fighting.

The rebels' retreat from Bin Jawad was sudden.

Hundreds of the loosely organised rebels tore back at high speed in pickup trucks and other vehicles to Ras Lanuf to regroup, with many saying they feared an army advance but some wanting to return immediately to the front line.

"Many of the rebels are young, and they're just not used to war. That's why they ran back," rebel Ibrahim Zwei told Reuters.

Lack of experience

The revolutionary fervour that had carried the Libyan rebels to three straight victories over government forces as they moved west was in short supply on Monday, after the surprise ambush highlighted their painful lack of experience, this correspondent reported after talking to rebels to gauge their mood on Monday.

Rebels said they had been relying on the residents of government-held towns to rise up and join them, but this is likely to become harder as they move west into more affluent areas that have benefitted from Gaddafi's rule.

Many fighters, mostly youths in jeans and sneakers, said they were betrayed by the people of Bin Jawad.

"We got calls from the people of Bin Jawad telling us to come through and that all was well. Then we were ambushed," said Hani Zwei. "I can't believe our own countrymen would do that."

So far, rebels had been careful to accuse mostly foreign mercenaries of fighting for Gaddafi, and had been keen to highlight national unity and support for their cause.

The oil port of Ras Lanuf has manicured gardens and handsome buildings, but the town is now littered with rubbish and covered in graffiti from the rebel army. Some rebels have looted nearby oil firms and now drive around in stolen trucks. Oil workers looked on balefully, saying nothing to reporters.

- Reuters


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