Libyan rebels locked in battles

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    4 March 2011
    Last updated at 18:19 ET


    Protesters turning over car

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    Jeremy Bowen reports from Tajoura near Tripoli, where one anti-government protester spoke about people’s fears of being killed

    Libyan rebels have been locked in fierce battles with pro-Gaddafi forces on two fronts.

    Rebel-held Zawiya, just 50km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, was the subject of a fierce government assault. Both sides later claimed to be in control.

    Heavy casualties were reported there and in other key cities, including the eastern port of Ras Lanuf.

    Dozens of people were also killed and hurt in apparently accidental blasts at an arms dump in rebel-held Benghazi.

    Hospital sources in the city, Libya’s second-largest, said they believed the two explosions were not triggered by an air strike.

    Reports said at least 17 people had been killed in the blasts.

    Earlier in the day, clashes briefly erupted after Friday prayers in the capital, Tripoli, but protesters dispersed after security forces fired tear gas and baton rounds.

    ‘Pockets of resistance’

    Reports from Zawiya said the most senior rebel commander in the city was among those killed there.

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    At the scene

    There were violent scenes here, just on the outskirts of Tripoli. This is significant because, of course, Col Gaddafi insists that everybody, especially in the country near Tripoli, loves him and that there are no protests.

    What we saw today after Friday prayers was a vociferous protest by anti-Gaddafi demonstrators. Then, all of a sudden, pro-government militia and police came in vehicles screeching into the centre of the suburbs, firing dozens of tear gas canisters and baton rounds.

    The scene was chaotic as people ran away but then they came back, shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans.

    We knew that Fridays are always significant because a lot of the anti-government protesters gather in and around the mosque and come out into the streets. But this is proof that this isn’t just an uprising in the east and perhaps the west of the country, but there are significant elements in and near Tripoli that are opposed to the regime.

    Despite the considerable risks they are running, they are prepared to protest and demand the end of a man who has ruled this country for 42 years.

    One resident told BBC Arabic TV that many people had died when a peaceful demonstration came under fire.

    Another told Reuters news agency up to 50 people could have been killed.

    A second Reuters witness said he had just come from the hospital and many people were lying dead and injured.

    “We have counted 30 dead civilians,” he said. “The hospital was full. They could not find space for the casualties.”

    Libyan state television said the town had been retaken by pro-Gaddafi forces, although later government reports spoke of “pockets of resistance”.

    After nightfall, some unconfirmed reports said electricity had been cut and there were fears of further government attacks.

    Fierce fighting was also reported outside Ras Lanuf, with the sound of multiple explosions and heavy artillery being heard after opposition fighters advanced on the city. Pro-Gaddafi forces withdrew to Ras Lanuf two days ago after a battle.

    Rebels at Ras Lanuf later told news agencies they had taken complete control of the town, but there was no independent confirmation.

    There were also conflicting reports about the situation in Brega. Some government sources said the town was in rebel hands, while others insisted it was not.

    In other developments:

    • A Libyan warplane bombed the rebel-held Mediterranean port town of Ajdabiya, narrowly missing a munitions dump
    • Several hundred mercenaries from the Tuareg community in the north African country of Mali have just joined government forces, a senior Malian official told the BBC
    • Interpol issued an “orange alert” relating to Col Gaddafi and 15 other Libyans, saying it would help member states enforce sanctions against them

    In Benghazi, the leader of the opposition National Libyan Council reportedly told cheering crowds in the city they would not give up.

    “We are people who fight, we don’t surrender,” former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who went over to the opposition last month, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

    “Victory or death. We will not stop till we liberate all this country.”

    Refugee fears

    The UN refugee agency UNHCR has expressed new concerns that people trying to flee into Tunisia may be finding their way blocked by armed pro-government forces, after a sudden drop in the numbers crossing the border.

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    Start Quote

    Victory or death – we will not stop till we liberate all this country”

    End Quote
    Mustafa Abdel-Jalil
    Opposition leader

    At least 10,000 people a day were crossing the border earlier in the week, but the number suddenly fell to fewer than 2,000 on Thursday, the agency says.

    “Many of those who have crossed the border appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

    “We believe that has implications – that they may have been intimidated in some way.”

    Tens of thousands of people, most of them migrant workers, have streamed to the border since the unrest began, sparking a humanitarian crisis.

    The European Union’s humanitarian aid commissioner has demanded that Libya allow help into the country, citing increasing concerns over the situation of refugees in border areas, AFP reported.

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    Libyan rebels locked in battles