Libyan government forces launched a counterattack against a key oil facility and air base in rebel-controlled eastern Libya on Wednesday morning as Moammar Kadafi vowed to “fight until the last man and woman.”
The attack on Port Brega, about 100 miles south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, was the first offensive by Kadafi loyalists in eastern Libya since the region fell to rebel fighters 10 days ago. It triggered an escalation in the conflict as hundreds of untrained young men and poorly equipped soldiers stormed out of Benghazi to help rebels try to repulse the government advance.
State-run TV claimed that the government seized the huge Sirte Oil Co. complex in Port Brega, as well as a nearby air base. Rebel commanders in Benghazi said their fighters drove Kadafi’s men back and took the area. But Ahmed Jerksi, Sirte Oil manager, told the Associated Press that Kadafi forces had retaken control of the facility.
With the area engulfed in fighting, reporters who drove down the coastal highway were unable to sort out the conflicting claims.
A government warplane attacked a major weapons depot outside Ajdabiya, an opposition-controlled city 50 miles north of Port Brega. The attack appeared to miss the depot — at least the fourth time in the last 10 days that airstrikes there have failed.
Kadafi, in a combative speech to loyalists and the foreign media in Tripoli, said he had ordered the airstrike to prevent opposition “terrorists” from using the weapons.
Rebels reported a second airstrike against opposition fighters battling government forces near a university along the coast in Port Brega.
Two U.S. warships entered the Suez Canal bound for the Mediterranean, and Western governments were discussing a possible no-fly zone over Libya in support of the opposition.
Kadafi warned of civil war, saying, “This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya.”
Port Brega lies at the edge of the area controlled by opposition fighters along the 600-mile coastal highway between Benghazi and Tripoli. The oil and gas complex feeds natural-gas pipelines that supply the energy needs of major eastern cities as well as Tripoli, according to workers at the complex.
If Kadafi’s soldiers are in control of the refinery, they could conceivably cut off gas supplies to the east and also deny opposition-controlled areas the gasoline, diesel and heating fuel produced at the Sirte Oil refinery.
The facility has continued to pump crude oil from major oil fields in the southern desert, sending it to Europe through a terminal at Port Brega. Western governments have frozen Libya’s oil proceeds.
On Monday, both the city of Port Brega and the oil facility were lightly guarded, with only four men armed among the 15 to 20 young rebels lounging at the rebels’ westernmost highway checkpoint, near the oil company’s main gate.
In Benghazi, reports of the attacks at Port Brega and Ajdabiya created a frenzy. Hundreds of young men poured into recruiting centers, begging to be sent south to fight. Some preteen boys and elderly men also lined up to volunteer.
Ghanem Saad, who held a thick sheaf of papers containing the names and blood types of volunteers, said more than 200 had signed up in the first hour after the Port Brega attack was reported.
Other young men piled into private cars and taxis and sped away, armed with automatic rifles seized from barracks overrun when street fighting ended Kadafi’s control of Benghazi Feb. 21.
Former members of Kadafi’s national army also leaped into trucks that towed heavy weapons. But the soldiers have only rudimentary training and are poorly equipped. For years, Kadafi starved the regular army of resources, especially in the east, fearing coup attempts.
At a weapons depot next to the volunteer center, men hurriedly oiled and cleaned old Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries. Some were intended for use in Port Brega and others to defend Benghazi in the event of airstrikes, soldiers said.
“Kadafi is trying to squeeze the east with this attack, but we’ll stop him right there so that he doesn’t even think about coming to Benghazi,” said Adel Sanfaz, a shop owner dressed in military fatigues.
Cries of “Allahu Akba!” — God is great — rose up as Wisam Barghit, an opposition recruiter, shouted out that he had just received a cellphone call from rebels in the south claiming they retaken Port Brega. That claim could not be confirmed.
At a former government special-forces base in Benghazi, men in ill-fitting military fatigues loaded weapons and ammunition on trucks bound for Port Brega. Ahmed Tawargy, a commander of a local unit, said at least 200 men were dispatched from the base.
“We have taken Port Brega back, but they need our reinforcements,” Tawargy said before leaping into a truck leaving the main gate.
Inside the base, special-forces soldiers who had defected from Kadafi hauled out weapons not previously seen on the streets of Benghazi. Among them were 106mm recoilless rifles, heavy and medium machine guns and truckloads of ammunition for rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Also sent south were anti-aircraft batteries.
“These are the kind of weapons we need down there to stop this madman Kadafi,” said Jehmer Musa, a special-forces soldier at the wheel of a truck hauling a recoilless rifle.
The streets of Benghazi were jammed with truckloads of young men, some of them without weapons, shouting and cheering as they headed south.
Mustafa Gheiriani, an official with the provisional government that is running Benghazi, dismissed the attack on Port Brega as “not a major matter.” In an interview at the government center inside the Benghazi courthouse, Gheiriani said rebel fighters had retaken Port Brega — a claim that could not be verified.
“They don’t have enough forces to hold these towns,” he said of Kadafi loyalists who are based in the Kadafi stronghold of Surt, about 200 miles west of Port Brega.
Gheiriani said the opposition was considering asking Western powers for airstrikes against Kadafi’s forces to “put a nail in his coffin.” But that is a hotly contested issue among opposition leaders, many of whom have rejected any form of Western military assistance.
In recent days, several professionally produced billboards have been erected in Benghazi. In English, they read “No foreign intervention. Libyan people can do it alone.”
Idris Laga, a member of the opposition’s military council, said rebels would welcome a no-fly zone.
“Give us a no-fly zone, and we will defeat Kadafi in just one week,” Laga said.
At the combined commercial-military airport in Benghazi, air force commanders who had defected from Kadafi continued to park commercial aircraft on the runways to prevent government fighter planes from landing.
The base contains two Russian-made attack helicopters delivered by defecting pilots. But they are short of ammunition and spare parts, as are two fighter planes the rebels claimed to have seized from the government air force after their pilots defected.
Several military vehicles loaded with fighters in mismatched uniforms sped away from the base Wednesday afternoon, bound for Port Brega.