Battles erupt in key cities, moving Libya closer to civil war

Anti-Qaddafi forces seized a key town Friday, but are facing a crackdown in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Benghazi suffered its first assault from the regime in two weeks.

Kevin Frayer/AP
Libyan rebels who are part of the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi prepare to leave on their way to the front-line near Ras Lanuf, west of the town of Brega, eastern Libya, on Friday.

Libyan rebels poured west along the Mediterranean coast from the town of Brega today and seized control of Ras Lanuf, home to an oil terminal and strategic airstrip, after hours of bloody fighting against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Meanwhile, in Tripoli, where the regime’s grip remains strong, militiamen loyal to Mr. Qaddafi and his sons flooded the streets, dispersing efforts to protest against his rule with rubber bullets and teargas and arresting dozens.

And around 7 p.m. in Benghazi, a munitions dump exploded, killing at least 17 and sending scores to the hospital. Rumors immediately circulated that it was an act of pro-Qaddafi sabotage, or perhaps an air strike, but the reality was hard to nail down.

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If it was an attack, it would be first successful assault inside Benghazi since Qaddafi’s forces were driven from the city on Feb. 20. The blast leveled a number of buildings in a residential neighborhood. Even if it was an accident, many in this increasingly nervous city will be hard to convince.

“I live about 15 kilometers from the attack, and my house shock when the explosion happened,” says a Benghazi resident, speaking from the hospital where he’s helping to organize medical supplies.

In recent days there have been growing indications that members of Qaddafi’s secret police have been active inside Benghazi. Though Qaddafi’s forces have repeatedly tried and failed to destroy weapons stores from the air, the explosion here has some worrying that the man who has ruled Libya for 41 years retains potent support and still harbors hope of taming the uprising.

Brega was the site of a battle that left 14 people dead on Wednesday as civilian militias repelled an effort by Qaddafi supporters to retake the town, home to the country’s second largest petroleum complex.

Yesterday, there was a chaotic rush of Libya’s new militia to Brega in pickup trucks and sedans to reinforce the town and vows from many of the young men assembled there that they would soon push west in the direction of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, and eventually Tripoli.

Today, they made good on that threat in what amounted to the first offensive from the east against Qaddafi’s forces.

Though thousands of regular army soldier and their officers are now siding with the transitional government based in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, the visible opposition forces in Brega and neighboring towns are drawn from the civilian militia that has emerged from the uprising against Qaddafi that began in mid-February.

Some are in street clothes, others in mismatched fatigues and Soviet-style tank helmets that look two sizes too big. Some carry assault rifles, others the odd RPG or surface-to-air missile, though many are armed with little more than butcher’s cleavers.

This afternoon, spirits were high, with more promises to press further west from Ras Lanouf. But the explosion in Benghazi this evening, 124 miles behind what many of the fighters have imagined to be their front lines so far, may lead to a recalculation.

Many of them are students, or unemployed, though mixed among them are former career soldiers and even a few Islamist militants who fought against the US occupation of Iraq.

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