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Heavy machinegun fire rocks Libyan capital Tripoli

By Reuters
Sunday, March 6, 2011 7:36 EDT
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TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched counter-strikes on Sunday to try to take back strategic towns from rebel forces, while intense automatic gunfire reverberated around the capital.

The resilience of Gaddafi’s forces in the face of the widespread insurrection and their ability to counter-attack will increase fears that Libya is heading for a protracted civil war.

While Gaddafi’s troops attacked and heavy fighting ensued, a government spokesman claimed a series of swift victories.

Shooting erupted in Tripoli just before daybreak, with machinegun volleys, some of them heavy caliber, echoing across the city of 2 million people, followed by the sound of ambulance sirens, pro-Gaddafi chants, and a cacophony of car horns.

“These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi,” Ibrahim said, referring to Libya’s rebel-controlled second largest city situated in the far east.

“Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 percent under control,” he said, but he advised against going to see the celebrations. “I would like to advise you not to go there for your safety.”

While Benghazi remained firmly in rebel hands, government troops backed by air power pushed rebels out of the town of Bin Jawad which they had captured on Saturday, to the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, 660 km (410 miles) east of Tripoli.

One fighter returning wounded from the frontline to Ras Lanuf was asked what he had seen. He replied: “Death.”

FIGHT BACK

At Ras Lanuf hospital, Dr. Heitham Gheriani said at least 15 wounded had arrived at the hospital, hurt in fighting near Bin Jawad. One French journalist was shot in the leg, he said. Four rebels were seriously wounded and unlikely to survive, he said.

But the rebels said they had shot down a helicopter in the fighting. Three rebel fighters speaking at Ras Lanuf said they had seen the helicopter fall into the sea.

State television said government forces also had retaken the important coastal cities of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli.

A resident in Misrata insisted the city was still under rebel control, and a spokesman for the insurgents in Zawiyah said they had repulsed a fresh government attack on Sunday after fighting off two armored assaults the day before.

“This morning, there was a new attack, bigger than yesterday. There were one and a half hours of fighting …. Two people were killed from our side and many more injured,” spokesman Youssef Shagan said by telephone.

“We are still in full control of the square. Now it is quiet,” he added.

In Tripoli, Gaddafi loyalists were nevertheless jubilant over the reports of cities taken back by the government and fired weapons in the air and brandished posters of Gaddafi.

“Libya is united. We will fight these forces that are trying to ruin the country. These forces are backed by outside powers,” said Salem Ghazy, a Tripoli businessman.

Rebel commander Abdelwahabin said most people in Tripoli opposed Gaddafi.

“All Libyans are unanimous about overthrowing Gaddafi, even in Tripoli, but they are unable to move there as all the security forces are dressed in civilian clothing, mixing with anyone trying to protest,” he said.

BRITISH TROOPS SEIZED

Britain’s Sunday Times reported that rebels had seized a British SAS special forces unit of up to eight soldiers escorting a junior diplomat in eastern Libya on a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders.

The SAS intervention angered opposition figures who fear Gaddafi could use evidence of Western military intervention to sway patriotic support away from the uprising, according to the London paper.

“I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi. We are in touch with them, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further,” British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC.

Despite repeated questions, Fox refused to say whether the group was in danger or was being held captive.

“We want to clearly understand what the dynamic is there because we want to be able to work with them to ensure the demise of the Gaddafi regime, to see a transition to greater stability in Libya and ultimately to more representative government,” Fox said.

In a French newspaper interview, Gaddafi said he was embroiled in a fight against Islamist terrorism and expressed dismay at the absence of support from abroad.

“I am surprised that nobody understands that this is a fight against terrorism,” Gaddafi told le Journal du Dimanche.

“Our security services cooperate. We have helped you a lot these past few years. So why is it that when we are in a fight against terrorism here in Libya no one helps us in return?”

Western leaders have denounced what they call Gaddafi’s brutal response to the uprising, and the International Criminal Court said he and his inner circle face investigation for alleged targeting of civilians by his security forces.

But the opposition, while assembling an inspired fighting force, has failed to produce a convincingly clear leadership, a weakness Gaddafi hopes to exploit as the struggle continues.

The International Energy Agency said the revolt had blocked about 60 percent of Libya’s 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) oil output. The drop, due largely to the flight of thousands of foreign oil workers, will batter the economy and have already jacked up crude prices abroad.

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Ajdabiya, Mohammed Abbas in Bin Jawad, Stefano Ambrogi in London, Nick Vinocur in Paris and Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Hemming; Editing by Michael Roddy)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Top News

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