Opposition fighters attend their first day of training at an overtaken military base in Benghazi, Libya, March 1, 2011. (Photo: Lynsey Addario / The New York Times)
Brega, Libya - In a fierce day-long battle, rebel forces in this strategic oil town successfully repelled an attack on Wednesday by government-aligned mercenaries backed by artillery and war planes, witnesses in the town said. At least five were confirmed dead and 16 wounded in the fighting, the witnesses said, citing firsthand reports from the hospital.
The attack seemed to be part of a broader government effort to reassert control over strategic oil assets in the eastern part of the country, which have been seized by rebel forces in recent weeks.
The mercenaries attacked at dawn, the witnesses said, arriving in a convoy of cars and pickups and armed with rifles and aging anti-tank guns. They quickly took the airport and a university in the town, an oil-exporting terminal on the Libyan coast around 500 miles east of Colonel Qaddafi’s stronghold in the capital, Tripoli. Witnesses said they took hostages at the university and used them as human shields.
But despite hours of shelling and repeated airstrikes, the invaders were beaten back by the end of the day, the witnesses said, as rebel reinforcements arrived from the nearby cities of Ajdabiya and Benghazi.
Throughout the day in Ajdabiya, where rebels have taken control of a large ammunition dump, a ragtag collection of rebel fighters armed with assault rifles and the occasional anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck passed through a green checkpoint on their way to Brega. There was no clear command and control of the forces. Residents of Ajdabiya reported an airstrike in the area, though not in the town.
The town lies on the western approaches to Benghazi, the rebel bastion, where dozens of semi-trained young volunteers similarly stormed out of a military base on Wednesday, clambered onto a truck and said they were heading — unarmed — to the front line. Other rebel fighters said they were hoping to load tanks on to transport vehicles to join the battle in Brega.
As the International Criminal Court announced it would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Libya’s crackdown on protesters, the country’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, delivered a rambling and defiant speech lasting more than three hours, in which he renewed accusations that Islamist forces outside Libya were responsible for the uprising.
He challenged the United Nations to send a fact-finding mission to confirm his version of events — which contradicts what much of the world believes about the latest outbreak of discontent that has toppled the leaders of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt and threatened others in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.
He called the rebels holding some cities “terrorists” and said loyalist forces would not surrender. “We will fight until the last man, the last woman for Libya, from north, south, east and west,” he said.
Colonel Qaddafi’s defiance seemed to be borne out by a former senior aide, Nouri al-Mismari, his onetime chief of protocol, who said on Wednesday that the Libyan leader was likely to “fight to the end” rather than step down or commit suicide. “Power is very important, and he wants to be in power,” Mr. Mismari told reporters at a press conference in Paris. “He will fight until the end. He will not believe in exile. He will not step down.”
The developments on the ground came against a backdrop of debate in Western capitals about how to maintain pressure on Colonel Qaddafi to leave. The notion of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya has failed to draw support from either the United States or Russia, and Libyan rebels say they are opposed to foreign intervention in a home-grown uprising against Colonel Qaddafi and, increasingly, his sons.
Two American warships sailed through the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean on Wednesday, Egyptian officials said, while on Libya’s western frontier with Tunisia, an exodus of migrant workers from Libya has reached “crisis point,” with tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Egyptians, unable to travel home.
Britain and France announced on Wednesday that they would send airplanes and a French naval vessel to take Egyptian migrants home.
In rebel-held Benghazi, a council of opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures is seeking to draw a distinction between airstrikes and foreign intervention.
“He destroyed the army; we have two or three planes,” said a spokesman for the council, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga. He refused to say if there would be any imminent announcement about such strikes, but he wanted to make it clear: “If it is with the United Nations, it is not a foreign intervention.”
That distinction is lost on many people, and any call for foreign military help carries great risks.
The antigovernment protesters in Libya, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, have drawn broad popular support — and great pride — from their status as a homegrown movement that has defied autocrats without outside help.
Any intervention, even one with the imprimatur of the United Nations, could play into the hands of Colonel Qaddafi, who has called the uprising a foreign plot by Western powers that seek to occupy Libya.
“If he falls with no intervention, I’d be happy,” one rebel leader said. “But if he’s going to commit a massacre, my priority is to save my people.”
There was no indication that United Nations Security Council’s members would approve such a request, or that most Libyans who are seeking to topple Colonel Qaddafi would welcome it. Among the Security Council’s members, Russia has dismissed talk of a no-fly zone to curb strikes by the Libyan Air Force still under Colonel Qaddafi’s control, and China usually votes against foreign intervention.
The discussions appeared to signal a rebel movement that is impatient with a military stalemate that has crippled the country. The airstrikes’ supporters hoped they might dislodge Colonel Qaddafi from crucial strongholds, including a fortified compound in Tripoli.
The council is considering strikes against only the compound and assets like radar stations, according to the people briefed on the discussions, who requested anonymity because no formal decision had been made.
The United States acknowledged the sensitivity concerning outside intervention.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the Obama administration knew that the Libyan opposition was eager to be seen “as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people — that there not be outside intervention by any external force.”
As council members in Benghazi left a meeting on Tuesday evening, Ali Abubaker, 40, a trader, said it would take “big pressure” to remove Colonel Qaddafi. “We don’t want to be in the situation where the people are turning against one another,” he said, warning of the threat of civil war. “We’d like the honor of the Libyan people doing it themselves. But perhaps we need help.”
Others strongly disagreed.
“No foreign intervention in Libya,” said Essam al-Tawargi, an engineer. “With our guns, with our potential, we can bring Qaddafi down.”
That conviction was tested on Tuesday in Nalut, a city on the Tunisian border that the rebels said they now controlled, in part because local army units refused to fight them. “They said we cannot and we will not kill you because we are all Libyan,” a rebel who gave his name only as Ayman said in a telephone interview.
He said that soldiers working for Colonel Qaddafi still controlled the border but could not enter the city and that defectors from local army units had helped residents arm themselves. “At first we didn’t have weapons, so we didn’t use them,” Ayman said. “But in this war we need weapons, so we get weapons from our soldiers in our army — they have given them to us.”
He said that the people in the mountain region near Nalut rose in rebellion after hearing reports of massacres in Benghazi. “They are my brothers,” he said, “so of course I will fight for them.”
He said the rebels in the mountains would march on Tripoli “when all of our region is free.”
Rebels also said they continued to hold Zawiyah, an oil port just 30 miles from the capital, after fighting off an assault by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces on Monday night.
Inside Tripoli, residents of the working class suburb of Tajoura described a massacre that they said had been carried out by pro-government forces last week.
The soldiers, they said, repeatedly drove through the neighborhood shooting at crowds and buildings, usually from Toyota Tundra pickup trucks but occasionally from the backs of ambulances.
They said one resident, a mother named Fatama Ragebi, had been killed by a stray bullet in her home and was buried on Saturday.
They repeated reports that the security forces had not only fired into crowds but also carried off the dead and wounded, sometimes from the hospitals.
The residents named 17 neighbors who they said had been killed and eight who had disappeared from just one street.
Few could agree on what would come next. Some said they were waiting for help in the form of weapons from the bastions of rebellion outside of Tripoli, like Benghazi.
Others vowed that “the people are going to free themselves by themselves.”
Kareem Fahim reported from Brega, Libya, Robert F. Worth from Ajdabiya and David D. Kirkpatrick from Tripoli. Alan Cowell and Matthew Saltmarsh contributed reporting from Paris.
This article “Libyan Rebels Said to Repulse Mercenary Attack” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2011 The New York Times Company
Kareem Fahim reported from Benghazi, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Tripoli, Libya. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Benghazi, Brian Knowlton from Washington, Alan Cowell from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Geneva, and Liam Stack from Cairo.