Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi renewed attacks against strategic cities near the capital Sunday, and though his deputies insisted they were overwhelmingly successful, the reality appeared to be very different.
Attacks by tanks, guns and helicopters on Zawiya and Misurata continued to kill scores of civilians, but witnesses widely reported that the cities were retained by rebels at the end of the day.
In Misurata, one of Libya’s most significant economic engines, Salah Abdel Aziz said that “they got nothing from us.”
“They brought tanks inside the city and found themselves trapped,” the 60-year-old architect said. “All you need is light guns and Molotov cocktails to defeat them. People jumped inside the tanks and killed the people inside with knives.”
Ali Zeidan, an official with the opposition movement, said the city about 120 miles east of Tripoli, the capital, “is still under the control of the people. The people used very primitive things — dynamite, anything — but they worked.”
About 30 government loyalists were killed and 15 were captured, Aziz said. Ten rebels were also killed, he said.
Witnesses said the rebels had sufficient food and medicine, but that supplies may run out in two or three weeks. They said the fighters, mostly men in their early 30s, were moderately religious, but flatly rejected the Kadafi regime’s claims that they were aligned with Al Qaeda.
“We hate Al Qaeda. We fight Al Qaeda,” Aziz said. “We write slogans against them on the walls. I never see slogans in favor of them.”
In Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, which has suffered sustained attacks in recent days, Kadafi’s forces pressed again, but this time with a single tank. It was repelled, witnesses said.
Yet state television reported that the regime regained Misurata, as well as Zawiya and Tobruk, more than 600 miles east of Tripoli.
A Foreign Ministry official, Khaled Kaim, echoed the report in a briefing with journalists and said the situation in Zawiya “is under control except for a few people who are using their own families as human shields.”
Thousands of Kadafi supporters flooded the capital’s Green Square to euphorically celebrate the news in front of international news crews. The demonstrators also circled the area in cars as they fired guns into the air, a seeming attempt to rally regime supporters ahead of dark days as the rebels continue their fight.
One reveler, asked why he was celebrating, said, “I don’t know.” It became clear that many in the square were members of Kadafi’s security forces and their families.
Later, state television rescinded the claims of victories, and Kaim said “the facts on the ground have changed somewhat.”
Still, some rebels doubted how long they could sustain the fight without some international assistance.
“We are absolutely against foreign intervention except we would like the no-fly zone implemented immediately,” said Mohammed Ali, a rebel spokesman in Misurata. “Kadafi uses the air force to suppress his people and the human cost will be huge.”
Three influential U.S. senators — Democrat John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — went on Sunday morning talk shows to say they supported such a move. Kerry noted on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that imposing a no-fly zone was just one option. “One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time,” he said.
But President Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Lots of people throw around phrases like no-fly zone. They talk about it as though it’s just a video game.”
Other countries continued exploring diplomatic options, but no consensus on a no-fly zone developed.
On Sunday evening, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a British diplomatic team that landed in Libya in recent days and “experienced difficulties” had now left the violence-torn country. The team was widely reported by British media to include several special forces members who were providing a military escort to a diplomat charged with initiating contacts with the Libyan opposition.
British officials declined to confirm whether the team that had left Libya included elite troops. But the BBC and other news outlets said the team included special forces troops who had arrived in Libya before the weekend carrying weapons, ammunition and passports from various countries. The reports said that opposition forces were angered by the troops’ unapproved presence and took them into custody.
Hague refused to comment on the composition of the British group.
“The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved,” Hague said. “We intend, in consultation with the opposition, to send a further team to strengthen our dialogue in due course.”
Times staff writers Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Therolf from Cairo. Times staff writers Henry Chu in London and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.