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Updated: March 7, 2011 11:10 IST

Libya forces hold back rebel advance

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Thousands of Muammar Qadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli on Sunday morning, waving flags and firing their guns, claiming overnight military success.
Thousands of Muammar Qadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli on Sunday morning, waving flags and firing their guns, claiming overnight military success.

Qadhafi loyalists retake Bin Jawad; firing in Tripoli

Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward the capital Tripoli along the country's Mediterranean coastline on Sunday and forces loyal to leader Muammar Qadhafi engaged in intense ground battles with the rival fighters.

The opposition force pushed out of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya late last week for the first time and has been cutting a path west toward Tripoli. On the way, they secured control of two important oil ports at Brega and Ras Lanouf and by Sunday, the rebels were advancing farther west when they were hit by the helicopter fire and confrontations with ground forces.

Fierce ground battles were raging around the front line between two towns about 48 km apart, Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawad to the west. Associated Press reporters at the scene said Qadhafi loyalists retook Bin Jawad, about 160 km east of Mr. Qadhafi's hometown and stronghold of Sirte, which could prove to be a decisive battleground.

The reporters witnessed air attacks by helicopters on the rebel forces and heavy fighting on the ground. A warplane also attacked a small military base at Ras Lanouf and destroyed three hangars and a small building. Regime forces shelled rebel positions at Ras Lanouf with rockets and artillery. Ambulances sped toward the town and rebels moved trucks carrying multi-rocket launchers toward the front lines.

In Tripoli, the city of two million that is most firmly in Mr. Qadhafi's grip, residents were awoken before dawn by the crackle of unusually heavy and sustained gunfire that lasted for at least two hours. Some of the gunfire was heard around the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Mr. Qadhafi lives, giving rise to speculation that there may have been some sort of internal fighting within the forces defending the Libyan leader inside his fortress-like barracks. Mr. Qadhafi's whereabouts were unknown.

In Tripoli, Libyan authorities tried to explain the unusually heavy gunfire that erupted before dawn by saying it was a celebration of the regime taking back Ras Lanouf near the rebel-held east and the city of Misrata close to Tripoli. Despite those claims, AP reporters saw ongoing battles still in progress in Ras Lanouf hours after the claim of victory and residents of Misrata said the city remained in opposition hands.

After the gunfire eased in the early morning, thousands of Mr. Qadhafi's supporters poured into Tripoli's central square for a rally, waving green flags, firing guns in the air, and holding up banners in support of the regime. Hundreds drove past Mr. Qadhafi's residence, waving flags and cheering.

Over the weekend, residents of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 50 km west of Tripoli, said pro-Qadhafi forces stormed in to try to break the control of rebels over the area. Zawiya was the city closest to the capital held by the opposition.

Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Mr. Qadhafi's sons who commands it, had been massed outside Zawiya for days. Residents said on Saturday that a large number of tanks rolled into the city and many were killed and wounded in the counteroffensive.

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