Qaddafi counteroffensive is closing world's window to aid Libya rebels

'We have God on our side and a just cause, but Qaddafi has better weapons,' says a rebel fighter in Ras Lanuf, which has come under withering assault by Libya leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Libyan rebels are loaded at the back of a pickup vehicle that leaves the eastern town of Ras Lanuf, Libya Thursday, March 10. Muammar Qaddafi's forces pushed rebel fighters from the strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf on Thursday, driving the opposition from the city with a withering rain of artillery fire.

Forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi made a successful counteroffensive along the rebels' eastern front today, targeting some of Libya's richest oil assets. The shift of momentum in favor of Mr. Qaddafi indicates that the window is closing fast for international actors looking to support the uprising – support rebels have been urgently requesting.

“We have God on our side and a just cause, but Qaddafi has better weapons,” says Sarhan Khaled, a 34-year-old businessman who has been fighting just west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf for the past four days. “We’ll fight either way, but we’d like the international community to stop his planes.”

This afternoon NATO is considering a no-fly zone to protect the uprising – something the rebels have been begging for – and economic sanctions have been heaped on Qaddafi and his associates.

The European Union froze more Libyan assets today, targeting the country’s central bank and its $70 billion sovereign wealth fund. The fund has extensive investments in Europe, including the publisher of the Financial Times, the car-manufacturer Fiat, and the Italian football club Juventus.

But events today show that consideration of further moves could soon become moot.

Late Thursday afternoon some of the largely civilian militia at the forefront of the uprising against Qaddafi’s 41-year reign started to withdraw from Ras Lanuf after a withering assault by mortars, rocket fire, and warplanes over the past two days.

After pummeling the rebel positions from the air, forces loyal to Qaddafi maneuvered in the desert south of the lightly armed rebels, who are generally visible in large clusters along the highway, to attack them from their flank. As of this writing, the town appeared to remain in rebel hands, albeit shakily.

Qaddafi forces rain fire

Today’s assault, to be sure, involved far more than planes. Though the rebels have rockets, they have had difficulty locating Qaddafi’s forces and are generally unskilled operators. That means that Qaddafi’s forces have been able to rain mortars and rockets on the area with little fear of reprisals.

Qaddafi’s fire appears to have taken on more lethal intent. Over the weekend, most of his bombs fell harmlessly. Yesterday, an air strike overshot the rebel position at the Ras Lanuf crossroads by about 200 yards, hitting an empty home, and today Qaddafi’s planes hit the oil-town’s hospital and main mosque.

Rebel fighters say Qaddafi’s forces have taken up firing positions to the south of town, as well as about half-way along the road west to Bin Jawwad, which Qaddafi’s forces retook last weekend. Ras Lanuf hosts both Sidra, Libya’s second-largest oil export terminal, about six miles west of town, and also one of its largest refineries, a few miles to the east.

Conflicting reports from Zawiyah

In recent days, car after car filled with families has come east from Ras Lanuf as civilians have sought safety in cities like Adjabiya and Benghazi, raising the possibility of a major displacement of Libyan civilians if the fighting drags on.

Qaddafi also continued to punish Zawiyah, a town just west of Tripoli that has largely sided with the uprising. The regime claimed it had retaken the city after a three-day tank assault, but a resident reached by phone there says the real situation remains unclear, with no one obviously in control.

The urban combat in Zawiyah is different from the fighting on the fringes of the desert in the east, and is almost certainly leading to greater numbers of civilian casualties.

The fighting in Zawiyah has left dozens injured, though good information from the area – ringed as it is by Qaddafi’s men – is hard to come by. Pro-Qaddafi forces abducted three employees of the BBC’s Arabic service who were trying to get into Zawiyah over the weekend, and released them Tuesday.

Treatment of journalists hints of Qaddafi tactics

They were beaten and subjected to mock executions. “I looked and I saw a plainclothes guy with a small submachine gun … then he walked up to me, put the gun to my neck and pulled the trigger twice. The bullets whisked past my ear. The soldiers just laughed,” BBC employee Chris Cobb-Smith told the broadcaster.

International reporters are generally treated better than domestic opponents in these situations, so the BBC ordeal is a small taste of how Qaddafi may deal with his political opponents if he manages to hold on to power.

“There was evidence of torture on their faces and bodies," fellow detained BBC journalist Feras Killani said of the prisoners seen in Tripoli. BBC cameraman Goktay Koraltan said that there “was a big operation going on there.”

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a reporter from The Guardian, and Andrei Netto of Brazil’s Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, have been missing for days in western Libya. The Guardian said it had contact with Mr. Abdul-Ahad on Sunday via a third party, who said he was near Zawiyah.

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