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Libyan rebels reclaim lost ground; NATO to expand its role

Western airstrikes drive back government soldiers in eastern Libya, while NATO countries agree to take on the entire U.S.-led military operation.

March 28, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Rebel fighters in Ras Lanuf said Kadafi's forces had fled past Bin Jawwad, where they had halted the rebels' westward advance on March 6. Several rebels spoke warily of occupying Bin Jawwad, which is populated by tribes whose members allowed Kadafi's forces to use their homes as sniper positions during fighting there this month.

Rebels and civilians happily filled up with free gasoline at two stations that reopened to long lines Sunday. Outside the Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex, a fuel tanker supplied free gasoline to rebels and to civilians driving west to check on homes abandoned to the recent government onslaught.

With refineries shut down by fighting, parts of eastern Libya have suffered chronic gasoline shortages. About 80% of the region's gasoline is now imported from refineries in Europe, according to oil company executives in Benghazi.

The fuel arrives by ship in the main rebel port of Tobruk, passing allied warships enforcing an embargo against fuel and supplies bound for Tripoli, according to opposition leaders.

Rebels gave reporters and passing civilians plastic pouches containing rations of bottled water, boxed milk, dates, processed cheese, an apple and a cereal power bar — makeshift MREs, or military meals ready to eat. After suffering from short supplies for weeks, rebels were so well provisioned Sunday that they left mounds of bottled water and boxes of fresh bread in towns along their path.

Residents returning to Port Brega described killings and looting by Kadafi militiamen and by mercenaries from Chad, Niger, Sudan and other sub-Saharan nations.

Shops and snack bars in Port Brega had been ransacked. Some buildings bore shrapnel scars and bullet holes. Downed electric lines snaked across the main highway through town.

"They tore through all the houses. They stole all the sheep and cows and slaughtered them," said Salam Mohammed, 41, a driver for the Sirte Oil Co. in Port Brega who returned home after almost two weeks.

Down a street littered with bullet casings and rocket shrapnel, a fat rebel fighter loaded a pickup truck with uniforms and boots abandoned by Kadafi's fighters. The man wore a new pair of combat boots.

"War is good," he said in English.

In Ras Lanuf, the petrochemical complex was shut down but relatively unscathed, easing rebel fears that Kadafi's forces might destroy it to keep it out of their hands.

In the tidy residential area that houses oil workers, most of the white seaside bungalows were unscathed. But some homes and other buildings had been damaged by government airstrikes and rocket attacks. Most anti-Kadafi graffiti left by rebels had been painted over.

Jubilant rebel fighters wolfed down food from the plastic provision bags and helped themselves to abandoned ammunition. One cache held mounds of tank and mortar rounds and several SAM-7 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

In Ajdabiya, rebels towed away government T-72 tanks and BM-21 Grad truck-mounted rocket batteries. Most were badly burned, but some still were in working condition. Rebels and returning residents posed for snapshots atop pulverized tanks.

Government fighters in Port Brega left behind graffiti that evoked their high ambitions as they advanced toward Benghazi before allied warplanes struck: "Today Ajdabiya, tomorrow Benghazi."

Times staff writers Henry Chu in London and Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli contributed to this report.

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