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Libyan Jets Bomb Eastern Towns, But Rebels Hold On

Libyan rebels withstood ground and air attacks on the Mediterranean oil port of Brega on Wednesday, blunting a major counteroffensive by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in a seesaw battle that lasted much of the day.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said the port, home to one of the largest oil refineries in Africa, was bombed by Libyan jets.

"Huge plumes of smoke rose into the air" after the warplanes attacked, Garcia-Navarro reported from Brega. She said it appeared that Gadhafi was "pulling out all the stops" to regain large swaths of opposition-controlled eastern Libya.

The attack began just after dawn, when several hundred pro-Gadhafi forces in trucks and SUVs mounted with machine guns descended on the port, driving out a small opposition contingent and seizing control of the oil facilities, port and airstrip.

When word got out that Brega had fallen back into enemy hands, Garcia-Navarro reported, thousands of young men riding in pickup trucks streamed into town from all over eastern Libya. Gadhafi's military was forced to retreat through sheer force of numbers.

"The dogs have fled," one middle-aged fighter shouted, waving his Kalashnikov over his head in victory after the Gadhafi forces withdrew.

Garcia-Navarro said the rebels were a ragtag group of fighters who didn't necessarily have the skills to use certain weapons, but had the will to fight and willingness to die.

Doctors at a Brega hospital told The Associated Press that at least 10 opposition fighters died and 18 others were wounded in the fighting, their bodies covered with sand thrown up by shells bursting in the dunes.

Screaming Warplanes And Heavy Gunfire

The attack on Brega and an assault on the city of Ajdabiya coincided with a televised speech by Gadhafi in which he said Libya would conduct a "bloody war" if U.S. or NATO forces intervene in the conflict.

Gadhafi warned that "thousands and thousands" of his people could die as a result.

The fighting in the east centered on the oil facilities at Brega, which lies at the western edge of the opposition-controlled territory in the east.

Ahmed Dawas, an opposition fighter at a checkpoint outside Brega, said a large force of pro-Gadhafi fighters in about 50 SUVs descended on the city shortly after sunrise and swept over the oil facility, taking an adjacent airstrip as screaming warplanes struck nearby targets. But later, he said, anti-regime fighters from Brega and Ajdabiya flooded in and took it back.

Rebel fighters carrying automatic weapons sped out of Ajdabiya in pickup trucks toward the oil port 40 miles away to join the fight.

At the same time, Ajdabiya's people geared up to defend their city from attacks by the regime. Garcia-Navarro said there were several bombing attempts on the area, the site of a key weapons depot.

"The weapons depot there is vast. It has about 35 warehouses filled with all sorts of munitions, including surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other arms. And so it is a very strategically important place for the rebel army and clearly also for pro-Gadhafi forces," she said.

At the gates of the city, hundreds of residents took up positions on the road from Brega, armed with Kalashnikovs and hunting rifles, along with a few rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They set up two large rocket launchers and an anti-aircraft gun in the road.

One rebel military leader, Capt. Faris Zawya, told NPR that forces in Ajdabiya were "still holding the line."

Scores of armed young men also streamed out of Benghazi, which is seen as the capital of "free Libya," to reinforce pro-democracy forces in Brega and Ajdabiya, Garcia-Navarro said.

"They say they are willing to die to maintain their hold of eastern Libya," she said. "And not only their hold of eastern Libya — they say that once they have defended this place, they will push out and try and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi once and for all."

'Terrorist Elements Are Wreaking Havoc'

From his stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, Gadhafi reiterated accusations that al-Qaida operatives backed by lies propagated by international media were responsible for the chaos.

"The terrorist elements are wreaking havoc, killing men, raping women and taking refuge within mosques," he said in the speech translated by Al-Jazeera English. "If one person is killed, it can be reported [by the media] as 1,000."

Gadhafi also claimed that high-ranking army officers who defected to the opposition had in fact been "forced at gunpoint" to switch sides. He repeatedly said the forces allied against him were armed and that reports of peaceful demonstrations were "a complete lie."

"These groups are in possession of arms and falsely reported to the outside world through their own cell phones that they are marching peacefully," he said. "On the ground, you can see that's not true."

When Gadhafi repeated the refrain that he will "fight to the last drop of blood," some in the audience in Tripoli stood up to chant and wave the green flag that has marked most of his time in power.

But in Benghazi, the first city to fall to the opposition, Al-Jazeera broadcast footage of people holding hand-lettered signs in English reading "Gadhafi is lying now" and "The liar is talking." Protesters waved the pre-Gadhafi red, black and green flag and flashed "V for victory" signs.

The Libyan leader challenged the United Nations to dispatch fact-finding missions to confirm that "we did not fire one bullet" against the demonstrators.

Within hours of the speech, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, announced that there is enough evidence of alleged crimes against humanity to warrant a full investigation of the actions by Gadhafi's regime.

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean.
/ AP
The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean.

A No-Fly Zone?

People in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the border with Egypt, told NPR that they were expecting the regime's counteroffensive given Gadhafi's commitment to cling to power. They said they are ready to join the fight — and they're equally adamant that they will not accept the presence of foreign troops in their country.

But members of the opposition said they want the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya — something that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said is under active consideration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, echoing remarks made Tuesday by the head of U.S. Central Command, said that while a no-fly zone could be established, it would be a serious undertaking that "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defense.

"Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down," Gates told a House committee.

On Tuesday, Gates downplayed the prospect of U.S. military intervention during a Pentagon news conference. He did not, however, rule out options such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels.

"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," he said, referring to the long war in Iraq and its backlash in the Arab world. "So I think we're sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options."

Gates said he has ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean Sea, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief.

NATO has said establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.

Still, some diplomats told the AP on Wednesday that NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over the North African nation.

The diplomats, who asked that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, cited NATO's aerial offensive against Yugoslavia in 1999 — which did not have the U.N. Security Council mandate — in response to the crackdown on ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. The onslaught ended after 78 days with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreeing to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.

"Very clearly there are such discussions going on, and contingency plans are being worked on, but there is no decision yet," said a senior EU official who also declined to be identified.

Airlift Operation Launched To Aid Those Fleeing Libya

Meanwhile, Britain, France and the 57 Islamic nations composing the Organization of the Islamic Conference joined the United Nations in launching their own airlift operations Wednesday.

With more than 140,000 people fleeing Libya into Egypt and Tunisia, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his nation had launched an airlift to help Egyptians who are stranded at the border.

"These people shouldn't be kept in transit camps," Cameron said. The Egyptians were to be flown back to their country, with the first flight scheduled for later Wednesday.

U.N. World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran said she was "surrounded by tens of thousands of people fleeing violence" during a visit to the Libya-Tunisia border.

Sheeran pledged $38 million for an emergency operation to provide food assistance to 2.7 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"As I visited the border area, the first airlift of 80 metric tons of high energy biscuits, flown in by WFP on Monday, were being distributed at the crossing points," she said in a statement.

NPR's David Greene, reporting from Tunisia, said semitrailer trucks full of aid items such as pasta, bananas and dates, as well as diapers, were being dispatched for border camps where thousands of refugees are being temporarily housed.

"What people here say is that there is no one organization that is handling this — it's mostly volunteers," Greene said.

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Wednesday that he is putting together a proposal for a U.S. aid package to promote democracy and economic transformation in the Arab world, although he did not offer a dollar figure.

"Events this powerful demand a response of equal power," Kerry said at a committee hearing. "Our commitment now to the ordinary people who are risking their lives to win human rights and democracy will be remembered for generations in the Arab world. We have to get this moment right."

With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi and Nishant Dahiya in Tobruk, Libya; and David Greene in Tunisia. This story also contains material from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires