No victor emerged in yet another bloody day of clashes in Libya. Pro-Gaddafi forces beat back a rebel onslaught near the coast on Sunday, stopping the opposition’s westward advance after a momentous weekend in which they captured the oil port of Ras Lanouf. But the rebels vowed to regroup and make another push to take the coastal town of Bin Jawwad—and decried a Gaddafi victory rally in Tripoli as a farce. Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues to rage in Zawiya, a strategic city near the nation’s capital, and Misrata, where a vicious attack by pro-government forces left at least 18 people dead.
Babak Dehghanpisheh reports from the frontline. Plus, full coverage of the Libyan uprisings.
The attack helicopter circled around the checkpoint at the edge of Ras Lanouf, a key oil town in eastern Libya, as a rebel fighter blasted away with a high-caliber machine gun. Boom. Boom. Boom. Moments later, a jet rumbled overhead and dropped two bombs a short distance away. On the ground, the rebel fighters were unshaken as both the helicopter and the jet faded away. "This is just an attempt to scare us," says Lamin Mahashesh, 42, a bald commander in green fatigues from the town of Benghazi who had the word "love" tattooed on his left hand in English, a few minutes after the bombing. "But we have nothing to be fear. We are fighting on the side of the right and Allah is with us."
When the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi kicked off on February 17, opposition fighters quickly took control of most of eastern Libya, raising the red, green, and black flag that pre-dated the despot's rise. Then, the movement seemed to stall. In Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya," rebel commanders—most of whom are defectors from the military—gave conflicting statements whether they were going to march on to Tripoli or dig in and defend their newly liberated turf. Gaddafi struck first: on Wednesday, pro-government forces attacked the town of Brega, roughly 200 kilometers from Benghazi, and Friday the Khamis Brigade, reportedly led by one of the dictator's unhinged sons, stormed the city of Zawiya, only 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. The two battles had dramatically different outcomes. Zawiya residents called into Arabic news channels with harrowing reports of security forces opening fire on civilians and mass arrests. The rebel fighters in Brega, in contrast, beat back the government assault, though the intense fighting left at least 12 dead and 28 injured, according to doctors at the Brega hospital.
Now, the rebel fighters in the east are on the move. On Friday afternoon, a rebel convoy of SUVs and pickups with mounted guns blazed some 100 miles down the highway from Brega to Ras Lanouf, the site of a major oil refinery. The remote highway between the two towns is hostile terrain even at the best of times: whipping sandstorms reduce visibility to just a few feet and stray camels are a real road hazard (there are even yellow traffic signs warning of camel crossings). Rebel commanders claim they launched an attack on Ras Lanouf with only 50 fighters and dozens more served as backup. The government forces outnumbered them roughly three to one, the rebels claim, and they unleashed everything they had.
"Their morale is low," says Mahasheh, the rebel commander. "Many of them don't want to fight."
Jets pounded rebel positions on the edge of Ras Lanouf Friday night and government forces surged behind them, blasting away at the fighters. The rebels lost ground and fought back. "It was back and forth, back and forth," says Abdul Salam Mohammed, a former police officer turned rebel from the city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, who fought in the battle last night. The government forces rolled out even more hardware: they shot at the rebels with anti-aircraft guns and even 122mm Grad rockets. "They wanted to destroy everything in the way," says Mohammed. "They used the Grad to sweep the ground." Still, the rebels kept pushing ahead and they took over the town last night. The government forces beat a hasty and disorganized retreat out of town. "Their morale is low," says Mahasheh, the rebel commander. "Many of them don't want to fight." Rebel fighters say they came across a handful of wounded government soldiers in Ras Lanouf who had been shot by their own comrades because they refused to fight.
For now, the momentum does appear to be firmly behind the rebel forces in the east and their pell-mell dash through the desert. Late on Saturday afternoon, dozens of rebel vehicles flying the red, green, and black opposition flag (and one flying a pirate flag) were roaring down the highway to the new frontline, some 20 miles west of Ras Lanouf. Civilians escaping the fighting streamed in the opposite direction with kids loaded up in the backseat and their belongings tied in bundles on the roof. The rebels already have their eye on the next prize. "Sirte, Sirte, that's where we'll be in a day or two," says Mohammed, excitedly, referring to Ghadafi's hometown, which is roughly 100 miles from Ras Lanouf. After nightfall, wire news agencies reported that rebels had taken another city further west, called Bin Jawad. The showdown for Ghadafi's hometown could, both symbolically and militarily, be a turning point in the Libyan revolution.
Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut Bureau Chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.