Libyan rebels retake much of key oil town

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 4 2011 8:41 a.m. MDT

Libyan rebels duck while others with vehicles retreat as they come under attack during an exchange of fire with pro Gadhafi forces along the frontline at the outskirts of Brega, Libya Monday, April 4, 2011. Libyan rebels pushed into the strategic oil town of Brega on Monday but came under fire from Moammar Gadhafi's forces, as a government envoy began a diplomatic push in Europe to discuss an end to the fighting.

Nasser Nasser, Associated Press

BREGA, Libya — Libyan rebels on Monday took back much of a strategic oil town that has repeatedly changed hands in weeks of battles with Moammar Gadhafi's forces along the nation's northern coast.

There were bursts of artillery and shelling from Gadhafi's forces in the west as rebels pushed into eastern sections of the town. Women and children were seen fleeing Brega as the battle raged.

"New Brega is under control of our forces and we are mopping up around the university," said Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a former member of Libya's air force who had a satellite phone and a GPS around his neck.

Brega stretches out over several miles of the coast and is concentrated in three main sections: New Brega, a largely residential area on the east end; West Brega, which includes a refinery and housing for oil workers; and a university between them. West Brega was still contested.

The uprising that began in February against Gadhafi's 42-year rule has reached a stalemate, with a series of towns along one stretch of Mediterranean coastline passing back and forth multiple times between the two sides. Though the regime's forces are more powerful and plentiful, they have been unable to decisively defeat a poorly equipped and badly organized rebel force backed by NATO airstrikes that have kept the Gadhafi loyalists in check.

Rebel forces made up of defected army units and armed civilians have seized much of Libya's eastern coast, but have been unable to push westward toward the capital, Tripoli. Two rebel advances on Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold on the road to Tripoli, were cut well short, and government forces pushed the opposition back 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more after each attempt. Rebels were hoping for more this time.

"We're advancing. By today we'll have full control of Brega," said Salam Idrisi, 42, a rebel fighter. "We're more organized now, and that's played a big role."

Italy on Monday recognized the rebel-led Libyan National Transitional Council as the country's only legitimate voice on Monday, becoming only the third country, after France and Qatar, to do so.

After speaking with the council's foreign envoy, Ali al-Essawi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the only way to resolve the conflict in the former Italian colony is for Gadhafi to leave — along with his sons.

"They are leaders of the military operations against Libyans," Al-Essawi said, explaining why the council refuses to accept one of Gadhafi's sons as Libya's leader.

Frattini also said proposals by a Libyan government envoy Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, who met with Greek officials Sunday, were "not credible" because nothing was said about Gadhafi's departure.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said that based on al-Obeidi's comments, "it appears that the regime is seeking a solution," but few other details of the Athens talks were released publicly. Al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister, arrived Monday in Turkey for talks with senior officials, Turkey's Anatolia news agency said, and he plans to also travel to Malta.

Gadhafi's government has declared several cease-fires but has not abided by them, and the council says it will not negotiate with him or settle for less than his ouster.

Gadhafi's efforts to crush the uprising that began Feb. 15 led the international community to approve the U.N. resolution and launch airstrikes, which initially were U.S.-led but are now controlled by NATO. Of the popular uprisings across the Arab world inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's has been the most violent.

On Sunday, Gadhafi's forces pressed on with attacks against Misrata, the last key city in the western half of the country still largely under rebel control despite a weekslong assault.

Government troops besieged civilian areas for around two hours Sunday morning with Grad rockets and mortar shells and lined a main street with snipers, said a doctor in the city.

Two shells landed on a field hospital, killing one person and injuring 11, he said. The attacks, including tank fire, began again after nightfall, he said. He did not want to be identified by name out of fear for his security.

A Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded from Misrata docked in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital, on Sunday. The boat, which carried medical supplies, was also expected to pick up around 60 wounded people being treated in various hospitals in Benghazi, as well as 30 Turks and 40 people from Greece, Ukraine, Britain, Uzbekistan, Germany and Finland.

A military plane from Jordan landed in Benghazi on Monday carrying medical supplies. Jordanian Col. Aqab Abu Abu Windi, who arrived on the plane, said it contained seven and one half tons of medical supplies to help the Libyan people and promised, "This plane is just the beginning."

Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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