Fighting continued to intensify today around the Libyan port of Ras Lanuf, which is bracketed by two of the country’s most important petrochemical complexes, as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi used grad rockets, mortars, and air strikes in an attempt to retake the area.
Late this afternoon, at least one air strike set a massive oil tank ablaze at the Sidra oil export terminal about six miles west of town, the first time Libya’s oil infrastructure has been damaged in the month-long uprising.
Mr. Qaddafi claimed the oil tank was set ablaze by "Al Qaeda" fighters working with the rebels, despite multiple witnesses saying it was hit by one of his planes. Rebels also said the pipeline that delivers crude from southern fields to the port was damaged in the attack, but this could not be confirmed.
At least four rebels were killed in the attack, said a doctor at the Ras Lanuf hospital. In the mid-evening today, pro-Qaddafi forces were maneuvering with tanks near the entrance to Sidra port.
Meanwhile in the west of the country, rebels in Zawiyah reportedly also faced a second day of indiscriminate tank fire and heavy casualties. The simultaneous military moves show that while Qaddafi is desperately attempting to retake Zawiyah – an important flank just 30 miles from his base inside the capital – he is also seizing the chance to inflict a crushing blow to the rebellion here in the east.
Facing off in the desert
Just a few days ago, rebel militiamen were riding high and slapping each other’s backs, vowing “tomorrow, Tripoli.” They’d seized the key oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf on successive days, and had rolled west into Bin Jawwad unopposed on Saturday.
But then Qaddafi struck back, ousting the disorganized fighters from Bin Jawwad on Sunday, and inflicting heavy losses on them both today and yesterday in Ras Lanuf. This town is at the heart of a string of oil complexes along Libya’s Gulf of Sidra. In addition to the export terminal to the town’s west, just east is one of Libya’s largest refineries.
The desert coast between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad has been turned into a chaotic free-fire zone in the past few days. The rebel militia and some defected Army units are clustered around Ras Lanuf and are being supplied from Benghazi, the rebel group’s nominal capital, and other towns to the east.
Pro-Qaddafi forces appear to be based in Bin Jawwad and the desert around town. They have more rockets and mortars, and air support that terrifies the rebel militiamen. They’re being supplied from Sirte, the next town west along the coast and Qaddafi's major stronghold after Tripoli.
Qaddafi’s fighters have appeared to prevail in a number of recent skirmishes, though the flat propaganda his government has been issuing makes it difficult to know the extent of his side's casualties.
Pro-Qaddafi forces show firepower
A measure of Qaddafi’s firepower was given yesterday evening. Then, a group of perhaps 50 enthusiastic militiamen sought to push on to the government-held town of Bin Jawwad, which many of the young fighters view as the gateway to Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
After charging ahead of a fixed position partially held by soldiers who have defected to the rebel side, mortars hit the small group. They pushed on, and were lit up again by rocket-fire and RPGs, with 27 casualties, a number of the young men having lost limbs.
“We need to organize better, but the youth are impatient,” says Ali Hussein Jumaah, a fighter who served nine years in prison here for the crime of possessing Islamist literature and who didn’t join the advance. “They need to understand that the enemy can see us, but they’re hidden in the desert and in houses and we can’t really see them.”
Two of the men who participated in the charge say that a number of casualties were left behind and presumed dead, but couldn’t estimate their number. “We have to go back, we’re going back tonight,” says Mahdi, a burly young man speaking at Ras Lanuf’s hospital today. “Our comrades are still there.”
Shortly after that conversation, young men like Mahdi appeared to make good on that promise. Rebels from Ras Lanuf again pushed west toward Bin Jawwad, apparently sparking the pro-Qaddafi barrage that hit the oil terminal.
Rebels lack organization
In Benghazi, about 150 miles east, civilian leaders of the rebellion broadcast a statement to supporters that claimed Bin Jawwad had been retaken, but there was no evidence of that available closer to the battlefield. Similar claims were made yesterday that turned out to be false.
There are few obvious signs of organization and leadership among the rebels on the front lines just west of Ras Lanuf. Col. Masoud Mohammed el-Abdali, a commander of regular forces working with the rebellion on the front, says that soldiers have been deployed in a ring around the area out in the desert, by way of explaining why his men aren’t visible.
But his men don’t seem to be working with the young gunmen who have born the brunt of the casualties so far, and his soldiers don’t appear to have participated in any of the engagements the militia has instigated.
So far, it’s the young, untrained men who have propelled this rebellion to successes against Qaddafi’s 41-year-rule. But now they’re coming up against determined and fierce resistance.
“We need to raise up our voices so the world can see what’s being done to us,” says Abdel Hamid el-Huti, standing next to the hospital bed of his son Mustafa, who was badly wounded in the fighting near Bin Jawwad on Tuesday. “I’m proud of my son for being in the front line, and if I have to lose him so be it. Only God and our own spirit can stop Qaddafi now.”
[Editor's note: The original headline of this article was changed after publication because it misstated what was bombed.]