Libyan Government Presses Assault in East and West

March 8, 2011


RAS LANUF, Libya — Government warplanes taunted rebels with flyovers and repeatedly bombed their positions near this coastal city’s oil refinery on Monday and Tuesday, seeking to drive the opposition forces back farther to the east, as Libya continued what appeared to be a slide into civil war.

The air attacks, which wounded a family of five, added a note of urgency to a growing debate in Western capitals about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

The bombing runs began on Monday morning, sending huge plumes of smoke into the air around 10 a.m. With every roar of a jet engine, the rebels opened fire with what sounded like every weapon available, from heavy artillery to pistols. In the evening, a warplane swooped low and on two separate occasions dropped bombs near a heavily defended rebel checkpoint, striking a car carrying the family and sending rebel fighters fleeing for cover in chaotic scenes.

On Tuesday, The Associated Press reported, loyalists launched two more airstrikes, maintaining an effort to block the rebels’ advance westward toward Tripoli. The bombs did not seem to hit any rebel fighters.

There were conflicting reports about the casualties after the airstrikes. Witnesses had said a man died when the car was hit, but doctors at a local hospital said the man, along with four relatives, survived.

The steady attacks from the air helped further turn the momentum of the conflict in eastern Libya, where opposition fighters had made strong gains recently in their drive to the west, toward Surt, a stronghold of Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi, and on to Tripoli. But on Sunday, troops loyal to Colonel Qaddafi stormed the town of Bin Jawwad, just to the west of Ras Lanuf, backed by fierce air power, and sent the fighters holding it into retreat.

Those troops remained on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Monday evening, taking no immediate steps to try to recapture it or its strategic refinery from the rebels, who took control three days ago in their westward push.

In addition, the elite Khamis Brigade continued on Monday to batter the opposition-held city of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, with tanks, artillery and snipers, residents there said. With cellphone and Internet communications cut off, virtually the only source of information on events there was a lone reporter for Sky TV, a British television channel. She said the heavily armed government troops attacked in the morning and inexplicably withdrew after several hours, even though their tanks seemed to have taken control of the city’s central square.

Government forces also attacked the rebel-held city of Misurata, Libya’s third largest, which lies about 100 miles east of Tripoli.

The rebels have rejected any foreign invasion of the country but would welcome a no-fly zone, saying they can handle Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers, tanks and rockets, but not his warplanes and helicopter gunships. On Monday, Britain and France said they would seek United Nationsauthority for a no-fly zone, but Russia, which holds veto power, has already rejected any form of military intervention.

The United States ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, said the organization had established 24-hour surveillance of Libya with Awacs reconnaissance aircraft.

In Tripoli, the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, held an extraordinary news conference in which he accused the United States and Britain of “yearning for the colonial era” and seeking to divide the country. Continuing the government’s string of improbable claims, he maintained that a force of about 300 Qaeda fighters formerly held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay was backing rebel forces.

“They are now fighting in eastern Libya. Their methods and approaches are clear,” Mr. Koussa said. “When they were released, they started moving again, and they have taken weapons.”

Mr. Koussa also became the first government official to admit that the government was meeting resistance in Zawiyah. But whereas news reports and interviews with residents have described a grim, large-scale battle, he said the violence was caused by a group of 30 to 35 rebels who were “hiding in the streets.”

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