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Rebels solidify their hold on Port Brega oil facility

Opposition fighters say they drove Moammar Kadafi's forces back to another town. The Kadafi loyalists launched airstrikes on rebel targets but there were no casualties, residents say.

March 04, 2011|By Raja Abdulrahim and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Foreigners in Libya head across the border into Ras Ajdir, Tunisia.
Foreigners in Libya head across the border into Ras Ajdir, Tunisia. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Libyan rebels solidified their hold on a key coastal oil complex Thursday by fortifying their positions a day after Moammar Kadafi's forces attempted to seize the nation's second-largest petroleum and natural gas facility.

The rebels said they had gained more than 20 miles of ground Wednesday when they drove Kadafi's soldiers back to another oil town, Ras Lanuf, about 60 miles west of the battle in Port Brega.

The Kadafi regime in Tripoli responded Thursday with four airstrikes that produced loud explosions but no casualties, according to residents reached by cellphone in Port Brega.

Jabir Gadirbu, who lives in nearby Ajdabiya, said one airstrike hit near a rebel checkpoint on the highway in the city. He said another struck near the Sirte Oil Co. complex in Port Brega but did not cause any damage.

Leaders of the opposition-led provisional government in Benghazi said rebels, buttressed by soldiers who defected from Kadafi's army during the uprising in the east, reinforced their positions in and around Port Brega and Ajdabiya.

Two opposition officials said rebel fighters were digging in to prepare for a government attack. They were also looking for opportunities to continue to push government forces toward the Kadafi stronghold of Surt farther west.

Reinforcements were beefed up around the oil facility, with rebels and soldiers bringing in more machine guns, grenade launchers and small arms, the officials said. There were also some antiaircraft guns mounted on pickups.

The facility provides natural gas to cities in the east, as well as Tripoli, and refines gasoline, diesel and heating oil for the east, company workers say.

In The Hague, the International Criminal Court announced that it would investigate Kadafi, his sons and his inner circle for alleged crimes against humanity.

"Peaceful demonstrators were attacked by security forces," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said at a news conference. "No one can attack civilians."

Moreno-Ocampo said the investigation would be carried out within weeks. Once it is completed, ICC judges will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to issue arrest warrants.

Moreno-Ocampo said the court would also look into any allegations of abuses by rebel forces.

Near Port Brega, four people wounded in the previous day's fighting died Thursday, bringing the total rebel death toll to nine, Gadirbu said. Other reports put the total as high as 14. There were no reliable estimates of the death toll for government forces.

A resident said about 50 Kadafi militiamen in the desert south of the city were captured by rebel forces and were being held in Ajdabiya, with plans to take them to Benghazi on Friday. Government fighters and mercenaries captured earlier have been taken to Benghazi for prosecution.

In Benghazi, the provisional rebel government formally asked the United Nations Security Council to authorize airstrikes against government military targets. The Benghazi government's council of leaders voted late Wednesday to approve the request.

In a statement, the council requested "strategic air force missile strikes" in order to "help the unarmed people of Libya to put an end to genocide and crimes against humanity."

Mustafa Gheriani, an official with the provisional government, said the council had not received a response.

The rebels also asked for a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent airstrikes on opposition targets by the Kadafi regime. The United States has resisted the idea, saying it would first require attacking and destroying Kadafi's air defense system.

Elsewhere in Benghazi, volunteers continued to file into rebel recruiting centers to register to join the fight against Kadafi.

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.

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