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Qaddafi strikes back at Libya rebels' western advance

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi pushed back Sunday against a rebel advance toward Mr. Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte from Libya's 'liberated' east.

By Staff writer / March 6, 2011

Rebels walk forward as smoke raises from mortar and tank shelling during a fight against pro-Qaddafi fighters near the town of Bin-Jawad, eastern Libya, Sunday. Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward the capital along the Mediterranean coastline Sunday and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi fought intense ground battles with the rival fighters.

Hussein Malla/AP

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Ras Lanuf, Libya

Yesterday, militiamen in Libya's "liberated" east were flush with easy victory. They’d taken the key oil terminal at Ras Lanuf after sharp fighting on Friday. And on Saturday they rolled further west into the coastal town of Bin Jawad with hardly a shot being fired.

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This morning, they were vowing to press west to Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, his last stronghold on the Libyan coast before the capital, Tripoli.

But then a hard reality set in.

The Libyan civilians-turned-militiamen – a growing number of whom are referring to themselves as mujahideen or "holy warriors" – didn’t consolidate their position in Bin Jawad overnight. Some rushed forward, others returned to Ras Lanuf to sleep, leaving nothing like an organized occupation force in Bin Jawad.

At mid-morning today came the counterattack, with pro-Qaddafi militiamen moving in behind air strikes on the road west of town from fighter jets. Rebel positions were also shelled.

Meanwhile, an air strike this morning targeted rebel positions in Ras Lanuf, about 20 miles west of Bin Jawad. Qaddafi has focused most of his bombing efforts on weapons dumps in recent days, seeking to deny the rebels access to more arms, but these bombs – which landed harmlessly in the desert – appeared to be aimed at the rebels themselves.

Qaddafi's forces also reportedly used artillery and tanks in the rebel-held town of Misrata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, in what appears to be Qaddafi's most serious attempt to retake the town since rebels took it over more than a week ago. Misrata remains the biggest population center under rebel control outside Libya's "liberated" east.

War could drag on

The longer the war drags on, the greater the chances that Qaddafi, who seized control of Libya in a 1969 coup, will survive.

State television has been filled with propaganda – claiming overnight that Ras Lanuf has been retaken by his forces, a patent lie. State TV also claimed the western city of Zawiya, close to Tripoli, and the far eastern town of Tobruk, had fallen to Qaddafi’s forces. Rebels in both locations dismissed the claim.

While Bin Jawad is of little strategic relevance, Ras Lanuf is something else again. It has a full-sized air strip and a major petrochemical complex. But for the moment it is firmly in opposition hands.

Fighters returning from Bin Jawad said some residents of the town came out of their homes firing at the rebels, speculating that they were afraid to fail to support Qaddafi’s regime.

“A lot of these people will be for Qaddafi if he’s there, and with us if we’re there,” says Abdul Jalil, a rebel militiaman from Benghazi, speaking a few kilometers west of Bin Jawad on Sunday. “A lot of our brothers are still afraid of him.”

Depth of support for Qaddafi a key question

The extent and depth of Qaddafi’s support now appears to be a key component in determining on how long Libya’s low-intensity civil war will last. Most of his air strikes have fallen harmlessly, raising question about the commitment of his pilots to carrying out his orders.

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