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Rebels in Libya Win Battle but Fail to Loosen Qaddafi’s Grip

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BREGA, Libya — From the feeble cover of sand dunes, under assault from a warplane overhead and heavy artillery from a hill, rebels in this strategic oil city repelled an attack by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fighters on Wednesday. The daylong battle was the first major incursion by the colonel’s forces in the rebel-held east of the country since the Libyan uprising began.

The battle began at daybreak, when government fighters stormed the airport and the area around the city’s oil refinery. By the early afternoon, hundreds of men from this city, wielding Kalashnikov rifles and knives — joined by confederates from neighboring cities with heavier artillery — fought Colonel Qaddafi’s men, who were backed by air power and mortars.

But as night fell, the government fighters were on the run and the rebels were celebrating in Brega and all along the road north to Benghazi, the seat of rebel power, where fireworks lighted up the sky.

The attack seemed to spearhead a broader effort by the government of Colonel Qaddafi to reassert control over strategic oil assets in the eastern part of the country, which have been seized by rebel forces. And what appeared to be a victory by the rebels continued a string of recent successes in beating back those attacks, as they did in the western city of Zawiyah earlier this week. But the rebels have not been able to shake the colonel’s hold on power.

That quandary was apparent as the fighters celebrated their victory in a Brega square: the warplane reappeared and attacked the gathering.

“Yes, they won,” said Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the rebel governing authority, which asked Western nations to conduct airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi’s strongholds on Wednesday. “We don’t know how long it will last. He’s getting stronger.”

Eastern Libya, where opposition fighters forced out Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists 10 days ago, remains chaotic. Rumors come and go, with fears of fresh airstrikes and advances by pro-government forces, followed by bold but so far empty talk of a final assault on Colonel Qaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold. The military here is leaderless, the towns governed by ad hoc councils.

The battle of Brega was a ragged affair. There were no orders, no officers, no plans: most of the men said they had simply jumped in cars to defend their freedom after hearing that government loyalists, whom the rebels call mercenaries, had begun a dawn raid on Brega.

Fighters carried every kind of weapon. Some manned big antiaircraft guns, wearing black military berets and saluting as they rode past. Others drove beat-up old taxis, clutching rifles, pistols, anything they could find, even butcher knives.

“We fought them barefoot,” said Erhallem Jedallah, a burly man who wore crossed belts of ammunition across his shoulders. “So with these weapons we can defeat Qaddafi.”

He was reassembling a big black antiaircraft gun — taken from a military supply depot — at a dusty checkpoint on the road to Brega. At his feet was a plastic crate full of gasoline bombs in soda bottles and a half-eaten piece of bread. Inside the gatehouse next to him were stacks of rocket launchers and boxes of ammunition.

“Victory or death!” the men around him shouted.

If the opposition lacks a plan for victory, Colonel Qaddafi’s strategy is equally murky. His militiamen, traveling in 50 all-terrain vehicles, attacked at dawn, and later took dozens of local people hostage at the city’s university, using them as human shields, witnesses said. Fighter planes bombed the area, leaving craters and shrapnel in a road near the university. The town has an oil and gas company and pipelines, and a small airport that might be a useful staging point. Read more in The New York Times.

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Written by Theophyle

March 3, 2011 at 9:13 am

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