A rebel fighter fires a weapon during a battle on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf,… (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters )
Reporting from Tripoli , Libya, and Cairo — Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi's security forces launched a sustained assault against a rebel-controlled city near the capital Friday, and dozens of civilians were killed in the fighting, witnesses said.
The initiative to retake Zawiya, the city 25 miles west of Tripoli that was seized by rebels four days earlier, reportedly claimed the life of a leading rebel commander as forces controlled by one of Kadafi's sons, Khamis Moammar Kadafi, unleashed mortar and machine-gun fire.
"We have 45 people who were killed," said Saber Kolhati, a 30-year-old witness. "We have teenagers as young as 15 among the dead. There is the sound of Kalashnikov rifles, tanks and heavy machine guns. The rebels are trying to protect the hospital and injured people from the government."
Hussein Darbouk, a renegade colonel from Kadafi's army who was leading rebel forces in the city, was killed by fire from antiaircraft guns, rebel leaders said.
A central Zawiya resident said the fighting began Thursday night and continued throughout the day Friday. "I can't leave the house," the man said by telephone.
A government spokesman said the security forces were close to retaking the city, but witnesses said rebels retained control of three out of four entrances to Zawiya. They said the rebellion also retained control of the airport, where anti-government fighters destroyed a military aircraft.
In eastern Libya, government forces and rebels continued to clash in the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, where residents said explosions could be heard as the two sides battled for control of an airstrip.
Tawfiq Mangoosh, a rebel fighter in Port Brega, was heading to Ras Lanuf on Friday night and said the oil refinery, residential area and airport there were already under rebel control.
"They fled Ras Lanuf," he said of the government forces.
Clashes went on for hours that left two rebels dead and 24 injured, Mangoosh said. He also reported that 20 pro-government militiamen who refused to fire on the rebels were killed by their comrades, mirroring stories that had come out of Benghazi during the first days of the revolution.
Also on Friday, news agencies quoted hospital officials as saying that at least 17 people were killed in an explosion at an ammunition storage facility at a military base about 20 miles from Benghazi, the main eastern city controlled by rebels.
The blast destroyed one warehouse in the base and damaged a second, according to an ambulance driver. Witnesses said subsequent explosions destroyed two firetrucks.
The cause of the initial blast was unclear. Some witnesses said it apparently was triggered when people went into the storage facility to collect weapons, but others blamed pro-Kadafi saboteurs, wire services reported.
In Tripoli, hundreds of protesters challenged Kadafi's hold on the capital, chanting for his downfall after prayers in the Tajoura district, but at least 14 trucks carrying security forces rushed past checkpoints to respond within minutes.
The forces used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Some witnesses said that the pro-government fighters used live ammunition, but the reports could not be independently verified.
Fighting also broke out in the city's largest gathering place, Green Square, and a Times reporter saw ambulances rushing injured people away, but it was unclear whether the demonstrations there were for or against the government.
Foreign journalists attempting to move around the city were stopped and aggressively searched by militiamen loyal to the longtime strongman.
"It is getting worse and worse here," a 62-year-old businessman said by phone. "Tripoli has been completely hijacked. Every mosque has Kadafi's thugs sitting in cars outside, and they stop anyone from speaking their mind."
Arrests of government opposition figures continued in the city, he said.
"They are going to the homes of anyone believed to be against the government," the businessman said. "My friend's son did not even have time to put on his shoes before they took him away. We don't know where he is now."
Meanwhile, Peter Bouckaert, the head of Human Rights Watch in Libya, said surface-to-air missiles fired by inexperienced rebels in eastern Libya could represent a serious threat to commercial aircraft or the international fight against terrorism.
Speaking Friday in Benghazi, Bouckaert said the rebels don't know how to fire the missiles, which do not appear to be under the control of any recognized military leadership.
Though commercial aircraft are not flying in Libya now, Bouckaert said the missiles could fall into the hands of terrorists intent on shooting down airliners. The missiles also could find their way to Al Qaeda operatives pursuing such weapons for use against U.S. military aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.
Bouckaert said he had seen young rebels carrying dozens of shoulder-launched SAM-7 missiles during Wednesday's battle in Port Brega.
Khaled Sayah, spokesman for the rebels' military council in Benghazi, said the missiles were looted from government armories. He said the rebels armed with the missiles are "under the umbrella" of rebel commanders.
"We control these commanders and if we no longer need these missiles, we can collect them and put them under the new military high command," Sayah said, adding that the rebels' high command is still being formed.
The rebels now operate in small, independent groups. Many fighters are young men who rush off for the front on their own in taxis or private cars.
Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Therolf from Cairo. Times staff writers David Zucchino and Raja Abdulrahim in Benghazi and special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.