Heavy machine-gun fire erupted early Sunday in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, including in the neighbourhood of Muammar Qadhafi’s residence.

Frequent bursts of gunfire and car horns could be heard around the city, beginning at 5.30 a.m. and lasting for several hours, but it was not immediately clear who was firing. An Associated Press reporter said the gunfire was heard near the vast complex where the Libyan leader lives, although it was not known if he was in Tripoli.

A government spokesman, Abdel-Majid al-Dursi, told the AP that the gunfire was celebratory, claiming that government forces had retaken the oil port of Ras Lanouf, in central Libya. But residents of Ras Lanouf said on Sunday that the opposition remained in control of the port.

Opposition forces took the port on Saturday and pushed toward Col. Qadhafi’s hometown, even as government forces in tanks rolled into Zawiya, the opposition-held city closest to the capital, in a seesaw for both sides in the bloody battle for control of Libya.

The rival successes signalled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.

The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Col. Qadhafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed.

Col. Qadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Col. Qadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.

With the Col. Qadhafi regime’s tanks prowling the centre of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents Saturday ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital “will be killed for sure,” one rebel said after nightfall.

Rebels in the east advanced from their eastern stronghold toward Sirte, setting the stage for fierce fighting with pro-Qadhafi forces who hold sway in the tribal area.

Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, with 25 tonnes of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.

The storming of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 50 km west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Qadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.

“The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big,” the rebel in Zawiya said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. The rebels vowed to keep up the fight in the city.

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