Fierce Clashes as Rebels Attempt to Move West

BY News Desk  March 6, 2011 at 9:28 AM EST

A Libyan rebel fighter holds a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher after spotting a fighter jet flying overhead near a checkpoint at the entrance to the oil rich town of Ras Lanuf on March 6, 2011.  (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) A Libyan rebel fighter holds a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher after spotting a fighter jet flying overhead near a checkpoint at the entrance to the oil rich town of Ras Lanuf on March 6, 2011. (Robertp Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 9:30 a.m. ET, March 6

Gadhafi loyalists clashed with rebels trying to advance to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, from the opposition strongholds in the eastern part of the country. In addition to ground fighting, government forces struck the rebels by helicopter and hit opposition enclaves with rockets, according to witnesses. The most fierce fighting has been in the towns of Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawad, 110 miles from Gadhafi’s stronghold of Sirte. There are conflicting reports as to whether rebels or government forces hold those towns. There were also reported gun battles in Tripoli, although the source was unclear.

As the rebels attempt to advance westward, there have also been battles in Zawiya and Brega, both in opposition hands. The stalemate over territory has led to fears of a civil war as the conflict has stretched on. Protests first began in Libya, following uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, on Feb. 15. The conflict has exacted a heavy death toll — the number of casualties is unknown — and created a humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the upheaval.

Updated 5 p.m. ET

An reported explosion at a facility full of munitions has killed 17 people in Benghazi, according to witnesses. Hospital officials say they are treating casualties, who are still being transported in by ambulance from the site of the blast and nearby homes. The cause of the blast is still unclear.

The explosion raises Friday’s death toll in Libya, now estimated at 30, although numbers remain difficult to confirm.

Updated noon ET

Witnesses say 18 people have been killed in fresh clashes with Gadhafi forces in the city of Zawiya, a contested rebel-held city 30 miles from Tripoli. An estimated 120 were wounded.

The reports come from the city’s hospital, where witnesses spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Updated 9 a.m. ET, March 4

Opposition protesters marched in Tripoli Friday in the face of a harsh crackdown in Libya’s capital, where they were met with tear gas and security forces firing live ammunition to scatter them. The protesters tore down posters of leader Moammar Gadhafi and waved the pre-regime red, black and green flag.

The crowd, estimated at 1,500, was an unusual site in Tripoli in light of the brutal response to similar protests last week, where marchers were shot to death and nighttime raids were staged by Gadhafi’s forces in retaliation.

Outside Tripoli, the stalemate seems to have solidified, with attacks in recent days by government forces on rebel strongholds in the east, including Zawiya and the oil port of Brega. Although opposition forces, which are loosely composed of resident militias and defecting army units, have been able to fend of attacks by Gadhafi’s forces, they have not yet been able to reach his stronghold in the capital and nearby cities.

Three members of the Dutch military, captured Thursday as they tried to land in the port city of Sirte, , which is still under Gadhafi’s control, were shown on Libyan state television with a caption saying, “[T]he helicopter flew into Libyan airspace and landed in Sirte without any permission from the authorities and this is in violation of international law.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said everything was being done to secure their release.

Updated 4:15 p.m. ET

Updated 1:30 p.m. ET

In a news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, President Obama condemned the latest government attacks in Libya, saying “The violence must stop. Moammar Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave.”

The president said he has approved the use of U.S. planes to help evacuate Egyptians stranded in Libya, and the U.S. was assisting in the international humanitarian response

Updated 9 a.m. ET, March 3

A prosecutor from the International Criminal Court said it will investigate Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and members of his family for suspected crimes against humanity in the wake of several weeks of violent response to protests in the country. “No one has the authority to attack and massacre civilians,” said Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who also promised that there would be “no impunity in Libya.”

Gadhafi has denied using violence against civilians. He would be the second sitting head of state to be investigated, following indictments against Omar al-Bashi of Sudan.

Meanwhile, negotiations are underway for three Dutch marines captured in the port of Sirte, where they had landed as part of a mission to evacuate two foreign citizens, one Dutch and the other of unknown nationality. Sirte is still considered to be largely under Gadhafi’s control.

On Thursday morning, airstrikes landed in the area of Brega, which was also the site of heavy fighting Wednesday. There was also a strike on a munitions store 40 miles away. Rebel groups, composed of both recently-assembled groups of fighters and defecting army units, have asked for airstrikes and a no-fly zone, though both options seem unlikely. China and Russia, both U.N. Security Council members, oppose the idea. The U.S. military has sent warships closer to Libya as part of contingency plans.

Gadhafi, who has warned he will “fight to the last drop of Libyan blood,” delivered a three-hour speech on state television, denying the existence of a rebel movement and blaming the unrest of terrorist elements.

Updated 5 p.m. ET

Updated 9 a.m. ET, March 2

Libyan rebels celebrate the announcement that the nearby city of Brega is under their control. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

Government forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi launched an assault on the oil port of Brega in an attempt to retake territory in the eastern part of the country, most of which is under rebel control. A spokesman for the coalition of opposition groups said that rebel forces had quickly retaken the town. Witnesses reported an airstrike on a nearby munitions store, and an Associated Press reporter said an estimated five were killed near a university.

About 4,000 people work at the oil facility, located near a beach along the Mediterranean Sea. The skirmishes in Brega and Zawiya seem to highlight a stalemate between government and opposition forces, with no significant territorial gains on either side in the past few days.

The United States, Britain and NATO considered possible responses to the crisis as U.S. forces in the Mediterranean positioned themselves closer to Libya. Two U.S. warships are crossing the Suez Canal under orders from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The U.N. Security Council has considered imposing a no-fly zone, but that move would not be possible without approval from Russia, the holdout vote among the permanent members.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said an estimated 1,000 people have died in the fighting and indicated those responsible would not be immune from prosecution.

Gadhafi has said many would die in the event of a foreign intervention and that Libya would “not accept an intervention like that of the Italians that lasted decades,” likening any American action to Italian colonial rule, and warned that anyone accepting relief from a foreign country would be committing “high treason.”

In recent days tens of thousands of refugees have spilled into Tunisia and Egypt, causing a growing humanitarian crisis as massive crowds overwhelm aid groups. Black African immigrants living in Libya have also reportedly been targeted after being mistaken for mercenaries hired by Gadhafi.

A Libyan government supporter flashes the ‘victory’ sign as he stands next to an army tank in the town of Qasr bin Ghashir, 30 kms south of Tripoli, on March 1, 2011. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 9 a.m. ET, March 1

In Zawiya, the rebel-controlled city closest to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, fighters repelled an overnight assault by pro-government forces, which began around 3 a.m. and lasted for some six hours. The rebel forces included army units that have defected, armed with tanks and machine guns.

The battle underscores the government’s weakened position in cities outside of Tripoli, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold. One witness told the Associated Press, “[W]e will not give up Zawiya at any price,” a nod to its strategic location and significance in the two-week-old battle. The situation has in recent days fallen into a stalemate as rebels have been unable to take Tripoli, and the overnight battle waged in Zawiya failed to retake any territory from the opposition fighters.

The upheaval has caused a refugee crisis for neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, both grappling with re-establishing government services following their own popular uprisings. An estimated 140,000 have fled across the border, an influx that has overwhelmed aid groups operating in those areas.

Updated 2:30 p.m. ET

The U.S. Treasury is freezing $30 billion in Libyan government assets, stepping up the U.S. government’s pressure on the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, Treasury’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, said in Washington Tuesday. According to Cohen, it is “the largest blocking under any sanctions program ever.”

The U.S. has also positioned military units near Libya as part of contingency plans as the situation remains unpredictable, according to Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan. Though the exact location of units is not public, the military maintains a presence along parts of the Mediterranean Sea.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said France was sending planes to Benghazi filled with humanitarian aid. Britain has also evacuated foreign nationals from the same area.

Updated 12:15 p.m. ET

Speaking in Geneva to European leaders and the U.N. Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded the courage of protesters in Egypt and Libya. “The demand for change has come within, with people calling for…a stake in the governance of their own societies,” she said.

“The United States supports orderly, peaceful, and irreversible transitions to real democracies that deliver results for their citizens,” she said, specifically addressing youthful protesters.

“This is the time for action. Now is the opportunity for us to support all who are willing to stand up on behalf o the rights we claim to cherish.”

Posted 8:45 a.m. ET

Rebel fighter in Benghazi, Libya, Feb. 28 (AFP/Getty Images) A rebel fighter goes on patrol Monday in Benghazi, Libya. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.

Amid growing international condemnation, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continues to fight protesters and opposition forces, who along with defecting army units now hold large swaths of territory in the eastern part of the country.

Residents in the city of Zawiya and Misrata say they are bracing themselves for a backlash from Gadhafi’s forces in the two opposition-held cities nearest the nation’s capital, Tripoli, which remains solidly in government hands. Local leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, have formed a governing council in the hopes of planting the seeds for a possible alternative government. Benghazi is under opposition control and was the first major city to fall in the uprising.

In Zawiya, a mere 30 miles from Tripoli, anti-government forces are bracing for an expected attack as government forces surround the city.

Despite a popular backlash, Gadhafi’s forces are better equipped and armed. Opposition forces are struggling with ammunition shortages and lack of central leadership, according to the Associated Press. It is unclear what capacity opposition groups have to launch a sustained battle in Tripoli.

But growing international condemnation has chipped away at Gadhafi’s regime, with the U.N. Security Council voting unanimously on Saturday to impose sanctions and warning that violence against civilians could be considered as a war crime under international law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was “reaching out to many different Libyans in the east” and called on Gadhafi to step down, saying he had “lost the confidence of his people,” marking a departure from the administration’s more cautious approach to the upheaval in Egypt.

Foreign governments are now preparing to send aid as food prices skyrocket and evacuees fleeing the violence gather in neighboring Tunisia, itself the home of a recent uprising that ousted Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Tripoli, the price of bread is estimated to have increased 500 percent.

Britain took the unusual step of landing planes in the desert south of Benghazi to rescue civilians of several nationalities. Prime Minister David Cameron said under the circumstances it was “the right thing to do,” despite not having permission to enter Libyan airspace.

Oil prices have hovered near $100 or more a barrel in recent days, with unrest in Oman causing further jitters in the market. Gadhafi has shut down around half the country’s output. Libya normally exports 1.5 million barrels a day.