Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on February 15 and has broken the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control.

Muammar Qadhafi’s Libyan regime, hanging on to power, has continued to search for ways to dislodge the opposition from the country’s rich oil bearing areas, and preventing the eruption of a full-scale revolt in capital Tripoli through the systematic use of force.

Regime forces have been from Sunday holding on to Ras Lanuf, a strategically vital oil port on the Mediterranean. By afternoon on Friday, an intense battle was unfolding in the town, between the opposition forces and Qadhafi-loyalists, who had withdrawn to Ras Lanuf after clashes on Thursday over Brega, a major oil export terminal. Anti-Qadhafi forces, armed with weapons were seen departing from the highway and heading towards the desert frontline, along with many ambulances in tow.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Saif-al-Islam Qadhafi, the son of the Libyan leader explained the regime’s fixation on reasserting control over Libya’s oil assets. Speaking of embattled Brega, he said: “This is the oil and gas hub of Libya. All of us, we eat, we live because of Brega. Without Brega, six million people have no future because we export all of our oil from there.” He added: "Nobody will allow the militia to control Brega; it's like you allowing somebody to control Rotterdam harbour."

Mr. Islam asserted that the West wanted to break up Libya, in order to control its oil, which is largely available in the opposition- held east. “I know they want to split the country. They want to just destroy it. They want to control its assets, it's a very rich country. Small population. This will not happen.”

As the leader’s son visualised grand strategy, a glimpse of the human cost of the internal battle over Libya’s oil has begun to emerge. The New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is reporting that in Wednesday’s fighting in the town of Ajdabiya, a short distance from Brega, regime forces shot in the head a 13-year-old boy, Hassan Umran, while he was herding goats. A HRW representative found 14 bodies in the mortuary in the Ajdabiya, as a result of the fighting.

Overnight, tensions had been running high in Tripoli in anticipation of anti-regime protests after Friday prayers. On Friday, eye witnesses said that several dozen police cars had been deployed in addition to dense network of checkpoints, manned by troops belonging to the elite Khamis brigade that had been established. But despite the elaborate security arrangements, more than 1,000 protesters rushed out of the Murad Agha mosque after prayers in Tajura, a working class district in Tripoli, which has been a hotbed of the unrest. Many chanted the slogan, which has been frequently heard during the recent spate of Arab protests: "The people want to bring the regime down."

According to agency reports, regime-loyalists resorted to teargas and live firing to quell the protests. A Reuters report said that live ammunition was used to disperse around 1,500 people, though it is unclear if shots were fired in the air or directly at protesters. In order to minimise reporting of the unrest, Libyan authorities stopped foreign journalists from stepping out of the Rixos hotel, in which most of them have been lodged.

In contrast to the strife in Tripoli, the opposition was upbeat in its stronghold of Benghazi. The newly appointed head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil has vowed “victory or death” during his address to Friday crowds in Benghazi. “We are people who fight, we don't surrender. Victory or death. We will not stop till we liberate all this country ... The time of hypocrisy is over,” the former justice minister said.

Meanwhile, there has been a sudden drop in refugees exiting out of Libya along the Tunisian border. The Associated Press is reporting that heavily armed troops loyal to Mr. Qadhafi are now manning the Tunisian-Libyan border.

More In: International | News