March 5 2011

Gaddafi sends forces into besieged town

Updated 47 minutes ago

A Libyan rebel fighter prepares for battle against Moamar Gaddafi's loyalists in Ras Lanuf. (AFP: Roberto Schmidt)

Libyan leader Moamar Gaddafi has sent armoured forces into the coastal town of Zawiyah to reassert control but has run into rebel resistance.

Arab satellite television channels including Al Jazeera said tanks fired at residential buildings in Zawiyah, 50 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli.

"Now with all the artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, we're seeing battles and killings we haven't seen in Iraq," one witness told Al Arabiya television station.

"I consider it total genocide. The battles have now entered the city. More than 15 armoured vehicles entered two hours ago along with a tank.

"There is heavy firing in all the areas and mosques have announced jihad against these brigades."

A Libyan government spokesman said the town had fallen but rebel force spokesman in Zawiyah, Youssef Shagan, later said Colonel Gaddafi's forces withdrew from the centre of the town after a fierce battle.

"They entered Zawiyah at 6:00am with heavy forces, hundreds of soldiers with tanks," he said.

"Our people fought back. We have won for now and civilians are gathering in the square."

Mr Shagan said earlier Colonel Gaddafi's forces had fired high explosive rounds in the centre of the town and rebel forces had captured two tanks.

He said many people had been killed but was unable to give a total.

Meanwhile in eastern Libya, rebel fighters said they had gained further ground in a westward thrust against Colonel Gaddafi's forces, taking the town of Bin Jawad some 525 kilometres east of Tripoli.

Earlier in the day, however, conflict broke out again further east in the oil port of Ras Lanuf, 660 kilometres from Tripoli, when rebels fired on a swooping government army helicopter a day after they reported capturing the town, witnesses said.

In another incident, at least 19 people were killed and dozens wounded when twin blasts ripped through a weapons depot at the Al-Rajma military base, south-east of Benghazi, doctors said.

The cause of the explosions was not immediately clear, but most residents ruled out an air strike by Gaddafi loyalists.

A two-week-old uprising against four decades of autocratic rule by Colonel Gaddafi has left undisciplined but dedicated rebels generally dominant in eastern Libya and his government in the west.

But the latest fighting suggested front lines were far from clear and could shift quickly.

Counter-attacks by Colonel Gaddafi's loyalists this week suggest the flamboyant autocrat will not go quietly or quickly as leaders in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia did in a tide of popular unrest rolling across the Middle East.

'Finished with Gaddafi'

There was no sign of pro-Gaddafi soldiers in Ras Lanuf on Saturday although the government had denied the rebel claim on Friday to be in control of the town.

"It's not a normal situation, but you have to be prepared for this situation," said Saleh Mohamed, 37, who works as an administrator in an oil firm.

"I am very pleased, we all are. We are finished with Gaddafi."

Rebels have already seized control of much of the rest of eastern Libya, where Libya's oil fields are concentrated and opposition to Colonel Gaddafi has traditionally been strongest, in a popular uprising centred on Benghazi, Libya's second city.

News of the fighting in Libya has thrust US crude prices to their highest levels since September 2008.

The upheaval has also caused a humanitarian emergency on the Tunisian border where tens of thousands of foreign workers have fled to safety.

An international airlift is under way, reducing the number of refugees stranded in tented camps.

Western leaders have urged Colonel Gaddafi to go and are considering various options including the imposition of a no-fly zone, but are wary about involving their militaries after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq deeply unpopular at home.

- Reuters