Libyan rebels celebrate their victory over forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Port Brega and Benghazi, Libya — Rebel fighters firing from sand dunes repelled the first determined offensive by regime loyalists in eastern Libya on Wednesday during a fierce, daylong battle that appeared to reinvigorate a stalled drive to topple Moammar Kadafi.
The attack on Port Brega, 100 miles south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, focused on a key oil facility and airfield that fell to rebels last month.
Undaunted by Kadafi's three-hour rant warning that the government would "fight until the last man and last woman," untrained young men and poorly armed soldiers who oppose to his 41-year stranglehold on power rushed to the Port Brega oil terminal to defend against the air and ground attacks.
Militia forces loyal to Kadafi thundered through flimsy rebel barricades before dawn in a massive convoy of trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns. They entered the oil port and briefly occupied the refinery, a small airport and a university before being pushed back by the arriving rebel reinforcements.
At least 10 government fighters and five rebels were killed, according to reports from the scene.
At Port Brega's western checkpoint, where young men had braced for days for the threatened backlash by Kadafi forces, eight men were on guard when the first mobile artillery and troops roared down the road, said Abu Baker Tabah, 27, who was part of the meager line of defense.
After days of Kadafi's threats to put down a rebellion he blames on foreign enemies, the sudden assault spurred hundreds of men, some of them retirees, and boys to descend on the battle scene to protect the gains of their revolution.
With neither a commander nor a coherent plan, the rebels took up positions along the city's two main roads and scrambled through desert sand to confront government troops holed up at the university campus.
The sides traded gunfire throughout the day, and ambulances rushed from the frontlines to the hospital. Suhail Atrash, an intensive-care doctor who traveled from Benghazi, said five rebels were killed, including a 10-year-old boy, and 12 were injured.
"When I heard our brothers in Brega were being hit, I came," said Atrash, wearing blood-spattered scrubs. "We had difficulty in getting to the injured; the ground was all sand. We carried them 200 meters over our shoulders."
In Tripoli, the capital, Kadafi maintained his stance of defiance, warning in a televised speech that he would fight to the end to stay in power.
"There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonize Libya once again. This is impossible, impossible!" he said. "We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south."
As two U.S. Navy assault ships entered the Mediterranean Sea from the Persian Gulf, and Western military leaders pondered a no-fly zone to contain the air attacks on Kadafi's opponents, the besieged leader told Libyans that slavery and a bloodbath would be the consequences of any foreign intervention.
"Do they want us to become slaves once again like we were slaves to the Italians?… We will never accept it," he said in a speech delivered with cheering supporters around him. "We will enter a bloody war, and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States enters or NATO enters."
Kadafi backers in Tripoli added their voices to the threats.
"If one American puts his leg in our country, all Libyans will die to protect their country," said Hani Abdallah, a 33-year-old construction manager.
State-run television aired images from rebel-controlled cities and alleged that government opponents were executing people. Grainy video showed bodies, said to be those of security troops, lying face down in pools of blood in the rebel-controlled city of Beida.
At the rebels' provisional governing center in Benghazi, Mustafa Gheiriani said the opposition was considering asking Western powers for airstrikes against Kadafi's forces to "put a nail in his coffin."
But that is a hotly contested issue among opposition leaders, many of whom have rejected the idea of Western military assistance. Several billboards have been erected in Benghazi proclaiming, "No foreign intervention. Libyan people can do it alone."
In Port Brega, opposition supporters ran through the streets of a residential area, firing their rifles into the air to alert sleeping residents to the attacking government convoy. Using cellphones, rebels called to Ajdabiya and farther north to Benghazi and Tobruk for reinforcements.
Volunteers in private cars, taxis and trucks sped to the defense of the oil facility and airfield. Some rushed to the front without weapons.
As Atrash and other doctors collected the injured, trucks full of jubilant young men brandishing Kalashnikov rifles and the occasional grenade launcher rushed in the other direction toward the fighting.
The rebels killed in the battle were hit in the neck and chest with antiaircraft weapons, Tabah said.