Muammar Gaddafi’s regime struck back at its opponents with a powerful attack on the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli and a barrage of tear gas and live ammunition to smother new protests in the capital.
At least 37 people died in fighting and in an explosion at an ammunitions depot in Libya’s rebellious east.
The bloodshed signalled an escalation in efforts by both sides to break the deadlock that has gripped Libya’s 18-day upheaval, which has lasted longer than the Egyptian revolt that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak amid a wave of protests across the region.
So far, Gaddafi has had little success in taking back territory, with several rebel cities repelling assaults and the entire eastern half of the country under rebel control. But the opposition forces have seemed unable to go on the offensive to march on pro-Gaddafi areas.
Meanwhile, in Tripoli – Gaddafi’s most important bastion – his loyalists have waged a campaign of terror to ensure that protesters do not rise up in significant numbers.
Friday’s assault on the rebel city of Zawiya, about 50 kilometers west of Tripoli, appeared to be the strongest yet by Gaddafi’s forces after repeated earlier forays against it were beaten back.
In the morning, troops from the elite Khamis Brigade – named after the Gaddafi son who commands it – bombarded the city’s western edges with mortar shells, heavy machine guns, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, several residents said. By the evening, another brigade had opened a front on the eastern side. Armed Zawiya citizens backed by allied army units were fighting back.
The commander of the rebel forces – Colonel Hussein Darbouk – was killed by fire from an anti-aircraft gun, said Alaa al-Zawi, an activist in the city. Darbouk was a colonel in Gaddafi’s army who defected along with other troops in Zawiya early in the uprising.
A witness in Zawiya’s hospital said at least 18 people were killed and 120 wounded. Libyan state TV reported the attackers had retaken the city. But al-Zawi, the witness and other residents said it remained in rebel hands, with skirmishes continuing after nightfall.
A doctor on the scene said pro-Gaddafi fighters would not allow medics to treat the injured, opened fire on ambulances trying to assist and hauled away the bodies of some of the dead in an apparent effort to keep death toll reports low.
The gunmen killed a wounded rebel with three shots as a medic tried to pull him to safety, then even threatened to shoot the medic, the doctor said.
The doctor and witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The day’s other fighting took place at Ras Lanouf, a small oil port 620km east of Tripoli, just outside the long swath of eastern Libya controlled by the opposition.
Rebels attacked Ras Lanouf on Friday afternoon, feeling flush with victory after repelling Gaddafi forces who attacked them days earlier at Brega, a larger oil facility just to the east. Fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and heavy machine guns were seen streaming in pick-up trucks and other vehicles from Brega heading in the direction of Ras Lanouf.
They battled about 3,000 pro-Gaddafi troops, mainly around the facility’s airstrip, said a resident of the town. She reported heavy explosions starting around 4pm.
As night fell, the explosions eased, she said, but it was not clear who was in control of the complex, which includes a port and storage facilities for crude coming from fields in the deserts to the south.Ahmed al-Zwei, a member of the post-uprising town committee in nearby Ajdabiya, said the rebels were in control of the Ras Lanouf airstrip and the oil and gas facilities, and the regime forces had returned to their base at Sirte, a Gaddafi stronghold.
At least two dead and 16 wounded were taken to the hospital at nearby Ajdabiya, although that did not include the toll from other hospitals in the area. Al-Zwei, however, said the Gaddafi forces had killed 20 guards from the two facilities. The death toll couldn’t immediately be confirmed.
To the northeast, hospital officials said at least 17 people were killed in an explosion at an ammunition storage facility at a military base about 32km from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The blast destroyed one warehouse in the base and damaged a second, according to an ambulance driver who said he recovered body parts from the scene. The driver spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
“There were so many people killed. I can’t describe it,” said a resident of Benghazi who gave his name as Abdullah and whose voice was filled with emotion.
Dr Habib al-Obeidi in Benghazi’s al-Jalaa hospital says the blast also hit a residential area. Witnesses on the scene, said secondary explosions destroyed two firetrucks.
The cause of the blast was unclear. Al-Obeidi says it apparently was triggered when people went into the storage facility to collect weapons, but others blamed pro-Gaddafi saboteurs.
The fall of other parts of the country has made control of Tripoli crucial for Gahdafi. His loyalists have taken fierce action to ensure protesters cannot rise up and overwhelm the city as they have in other places.