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Libyan regime touts gains in the east

Foreign journalists are flown from Tripoli to tour the battle-scarred towns of Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanuf, which had been held by rebels days before.

March 12, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Ras Lanuf, Libya — The shot-up ambulances at this oil town's hospital attest to a battle in which normal rules of engagement did not apply.

The burnt-out carcasses of vehicles show the ferocity of the combat between Libyan rebels and Moammar Kadafi's forces.

The pro-Kadafi soldiers manning checkpoints and waving green flags illustrated the authority the Libyan regime has reasserted over this strategic oil refinery city on the Mediterranean Sea coast.

In a bold assertion of confidence, Libyan authorities loaded dozens of foreign and local journalists onto a plane and flew them hundreds of miles east to battle-scarred towns Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanuf, which only days ago were under the control of forces loyal to the rebel interim government.

But with reporters banned from moving freely and speaking with residents, gleaning facts was an exercise in urban archeology, an attempt to sift through the remaining signs of warfare to piece together narratives.

Both towns largely were deserted of inhabitants. Government buildings had been heavily damaged in fighting that reportedly included artillery barrages and airstrikes by government forces. Antigovernment graffiti adorned the walls.

"Kadafi is crazy," read one in English.

But the government was relishing in its triumph after fighting back an offensive by rebels now holed up in the eastern city of Port Brega. Government tanks were positioned along the highway.

Much of the heavy damage to the buildings in Bin Jawwad appeared to have been caused by rockets and artillery fire from the west, suggesting that rebels had easily taken control of the small town before they were dislodged. The town's main police station and municipal headquarters appeared to have been subjected to heavy barrages of either artillery or tank fire.

A burned-out mobile rocket launcher faced west, suggesting that rebels had commandeered the vehicle and used it to fend off government troops, for a time at least. Several houses near the police station appeared to have been crushed by airstrikes, heavy artillery or tank fire, though one man who said he was a resident said "gangs" firing rocket-propelled grenades caused all of the damage.

The ramshackle section of Bin Jawwad visited by journalists appeared to have been emptied of almost all inhabitants, a mystery not explained by the tour's hosts. The few well-heeled men in leather jackets and polished shoes claiming to be residents drove off in late-model Toyota and Chevrolet sedans as the journalists left for Ras Lanuf, about 30 miles east of the town.

Ras Lanuf, built largely to host the employees of a nearby 220,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery, was a ghost town. All of the residents had fled because of the fighting, said a solider based in the city, and because the refinery had been shut down. Blankets and mattresses were laid out in front of the entrance to the residential district, presumably for soldiers or rebels, or both, to sleep on during cold desert nights.

Journalists were taken briefly to the Ras Lanuf hospital compound that had been used by rebels just a few days ago to treat their wounded. The floors were bloody and the hospital was in an extreme state of disarray, with bandages and medical supplies strewn on the floor outside the entrance.

None of the patients or medical personnel remained. Pro-Kadafi soldiers and militiamen chanted slogans, mugged for television cameras and held their automatic weapons aloft. Some soldiers held up an empty supplies box from the Arabian Peninsula nation of Qatar, which hosts Al Jazeera television news channel — despised by Libyan authorities — as evidence that the rebels were in league with foreigners.

Nearby were several ambulances that appeared to have been strafed with gunfire, though there was no indication of who opened fire.

Kadafi's opponents in the east and in the western city of Zawiya, until recently under rebel control, alleged that regime loyalists have repeatedly attacked medical facilities and vehicles in violation of international conventions governing the behavior of soldiers in armed conflicts.

One government supporter dismissed reporters' concern about possible human rights violations in the city.

"Human rights is a big word," said Abdul Raheem Nasser, a university lecturer in Surt who accompanied the tour. "Everyone can tailor it to their own needs."

A fire at a storage tank at the Ras Lanuf refinery continued to burn, the result of a government airstrike during the drive to retake the complex.

Oil Ministry officials had confirmed earlier in the week that the refinery, Libya's largest, had temporarily been shut down. But the fire continued to spew a menacing black cloud as the violet dusk darkened.

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