After securing the town of Ras Lanuf, opposition fighters gather at a new checkpoint about 25 miles west of the rebel-held town to celebrate and prepare for a new push further west, in Libya, March 5, 2011. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
Tripoli, Libya — Each side of the nascent civil war in Libya pushed forward on Saturday as militia forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi launched a second day of attacks on the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, just 30 miles west of the capital, and a ragtag rebel army moving from the east won its first ground battle to take the oil port of Ras Lanuf about midway down the Mediterranean coast.
Both sides were girding for a confrontation in the coming days at the port of Surt, the town where Colonel Qaddafi was born and which blocks the rebels’ progress toward the capital, Tripoli.
Eighteen days after it began with spirited demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, the Libyan uprising has veered sharply from the pattern of relatively quick and nonviolent upheavals that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, the rebellion here appeared to have become mired in a drawn-out ground campaign between two relatively unprofessional and loosely organized forces — the Libyan Army and the rebels — that is exacting high civilian casualties and appears likely to drag on for some time.
That state of affairs was evident in the northwestern city of Zawiyah on Saturday, where government attacks raised puzzling questions about its strategy. For the second day in a row its forces battered the rebels, then pulled back to maintain a siege on the city from an impenetrable ring around the perimeter. Later it struck again, and withdrew again.
By the end of the day, both sides claimed control of the city.
Foreign journalists, who have been invited into the city of Tripoli, were unable to cross military checkpoints to evaluate reports of what Zawiyah residents called “a massacre.”
Witnesses there began frantic calls to journalists in Tripoli at 6 a.m. Saturday to report that soldiers of the government militia — the Khamis brigade, which is named for the Qaddafi son who commands it and is considered the family’s most formidable force — had broken through the east and west gates of the city. “They are killing us,” one resident said. “They are firing on us.”
The militia attacked with tanks, heavy artillery and machine guns, witnesses said, and the explosions of a variety of munitions were clearly audible in the background. “I am watching neighbors dying unarmed in front of their homes,” one resident said. “I don’t know how many are being killed, but I know my neighborhood is being killed.”
In a telephone interview a little more than three hours after the attack began, another resident said: “Everything is burning. We don’t know from which side they are shooting us — from the buildings or from the streets. People are falling everywhere.”
The rebels, including former members of the Libyan military, returned fire. Although a death toll was impossible to determine, one resident said four of his neighbors were killed, including one who was found stripped of his clothes.
A correspondent for Sky News, a British satellite TV channel and the only foreign news organization in the city, reported seeing the militia fire on ambulances trying to remove the wounded from the streets. The reporter also said she had seen at least eight dead soldiers and five armored vehicles burning in the central square.
At 10 a.m., witnesses said, the Qaddafi forces abruptly withdrew from the city, taking up their positions in a close circle surrounding it.
Some rebels attempted to paint the pullout as a victory, saying that they had recovered Libyan Army cars and other weapons. A rebel spokesman told Reuters that the rebels had captured three armored personnel carriers, two tanks and a pickup truck.
But other rebel supporters acknowledged that there was little evidence that they had inflicted enough damage on the militia to force the retreat. Residents said they were unable to leave and visitors, including journalists, could not enter. “If you come here you will not believe what you see,” one resident implored. “It is like a war zone.”
Then, around 4:00 p.m., the militia attacked again. A witness said as many as six tanks rolled through town, there were more skirmishes with the rebel forces and then the tanks left as quickly as they arrived.
“We don’t know which side they are coming from,” one witness said in a panicked phone call.
At a news conference later in Tripoli, Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaim described Zawiyah as “peaceful for the moment.” Another foreign ministry official, Yousef Shakir, called it “99 percent” under government control.
At the same conference, officials also showed videos that they said proved their opponents were not peaceful demonstrators. Aerial video of Zawiyah showed tanks on the streets and antiaircraft guns on the roofs of mosques.
Another video, said to have been made by the rebels in the city of Misurata and obtained by the government, showed rebels firing weapons, with one struggling to fire a rocket-propelled grenade. A third video was said to show rebel interrogations and executions, which the officials likened to the tactics of Al Qaeda.
Despite all the footage of rebel weapons, however, the officials denied that the violence constituted a civil war. “There are some people who are acting in contravention of the law, which can happen anywhere,” a spokesman said. Mr. Shakir said: “It is a conspiracy, a very highly organized conspiracy. We will show the foreign hands in the near future."
In Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital, the rebels took another step toward organizing a shadow government, appointing an executive committee led by Libya’s former justice minister, Mahmoud Jebril. Ali Essawi, a former ambassador to India, was appointed foreign policy chief, and Omar Hariri, a former Qaddafi lieutenant, was appointed as the military leader.
A spokesman for the committee, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, rejected previous calls by some rebel supporters for international airstrikes, saying emphatically, “No troops on Libyan soil.”
“The revolutionaries have decided they have no need for action for the time being,” he said.
On the eastern front, where rebel volunteers pushed past Ras Lanuf, an oil refinery town that they retook from Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists on Friday night, it was not clear that they were taking orders from anyone — in Benghazi or elsewhere.
Witnesses reported that a government helicopter fired on a rebel convoy, producing no casualties, and rebels drove up and down the main road toward Surt, turning around and speeding away when they met an army checkpoint.
A Libyan fighter jet crashed near Ras Lanuf. A rebel claim that it had been shot down could not be confirmed.
There were conflicting reports on the casualties in Ras Lanuf. A rebel said that 12 rebels were killed, while hospital officials in the nearby city of Ajdabiya said five rebels were killed and 31 were wounded, The Associated Press reported. Reuters cited doctors saying 26 had died.
Near Benghazi, the ruins of an ammunition dump still smoldered Saturday, after large explosions on Friday evening leveled at least three buildings and toppled trees more than 300 yards away. At least 16 people died in the blasts, which some witnesses said were caused by airstrikes and others said may have been accidents.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and Kareem Fahim from Benghazi, Libya. Ed Ou contributed reporting from Benghazi, and Tyler Hicks from Bin Jawwad, Libya.
This article "Qaddafi Forces Hit Besieged City but Lose Libyan Oil Port" originally appeared at The New York Times.
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