A powerful son of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, energized by recent military victories, vowed Thursday to press ahead with a military drive into opposition-held territory in the country’s east, even as the government of France recognized the rebel-controlled interim government as the country’s legitimate authority and the international community increased the diplomatic pressure on Tripoli.
Meanwhile, a leader of the rebel government in Benghazi said the inexperienced and lightly armed rebels, many of them civilians firing weapons for the first time, have been reinforced with new weapons and by the arrival of special-forces cadets and soldiers who defected from the national army, including some retired military personnel.
Speaking to hundreds of rowdy supporters pumping their fists in the air at a conference hall in Tripoli, Seif Islam Kadafi derided international efforts to pressure his father’s regime to rein in its military assault on rebels he described as Al Qaeda-led gangs.
In the last 24 hours, Moammar Kadafi’s forces appear to have captured the eastern refinery city of Ras Lanuf and the western enclave of Zawiya, the only remaining rebel-controlled area in the crucial, highly urbanized corridor between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.
“I have a message from Tripoli I want to send to our families and our brothers in the east,” the younger Kadafi, wearing a sports jacket and jeans, told hundreds of cheering supporters in the capital. “To all the people — and there are hundreds and thousands of them from which I’ve had calls — my answer is two words, and these gangs must hear my answer: We’re coming.”
Wild, exuberant applause erupted as Seif Islam Kadafi, once his nation’s leading advocate for democratic reform, continued to hammer away at the country’s domestic and international enemies.
“All Libyans must unite and leave behind these demons,” he said, referring to the rebel leaders in the east. “And the British and the United Nations and the Americans won’t be able to help them. We’re coming.”
A wave of popular revolt against entrenched, tyrannical regimes across the Arab world sparked an uprising last month against Kadafi’s four decades of rule in Libya that has turned into an all-out war between forces loyal to the government in Tripoli and rebels fighting for an interim government based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Khaled Kaim, a Libyan Foreign Ministry official, decried France’s surprise diplomatic recognition of the Benghazi government as “illegal, illegitimate and a real provocation to an independent state.” He said the French government was violating its own laws and principles.
“All options will be considered in our response,” he told reporters. “If the French government goes ahead with this, there is no possibility to go ahead with diplomatic relations with the French government.”
Russia joined in the sanctions against Libya on Thursday, with President Dmitry Medvedev signing an order barring military training and arms exports to the country.
In Benghazi, Mustafa Gheriani, a senior official with the opposition-led national council, said he hoped Britain and Italy would also grant the rebel government recognition, which could advance its efforts to win approval for a no-fly zone over Libya and neutralize the air superiority enjoyed by Kadafi.
He also said Benghazi’s rebels had been bolstered by experienced fighters equipped with heavy weapons, including armored personnel carriers and several outdated T-55 Soviet-era tanks being repaired at bases in the east.
Even though the Kadafi regime appeared to be losing diplomatic traction and failing in efforts to convince anyone outside its circle of supporters that its enemies are Muslim extremists, Tripoli’s military forces seem to have driven back rebels who won control of Ras Lanuf less than a week ago.
Reports from the front said rebels had begun to retreat after being pounded by airstrikes, artillery and rockets. If pro-Kadafi forces are able to seize the petrochemical complex, port and airport in Ras Lanuf, 225 miles west of Benghazi, it would give Tripoli control over both of Libya’s major oil refineries.
About 250 haggard rebels scattered in retreat along a desert highway out of Ras Lanuf toward Port Brega, about 85 miles to the east. The cheer and bravado of previous days had turned to bewilderment and anger as the fighters, clearly stung by heavy air and tank attacks, yelled at one another and mourned their dead.
In the hurry to leave Ras Lanuf, the rebels left behind a number of antiaircraft weapons. At one point, a plane flew high overheard, and rebels dispersed into the desert.
A van that had stopped on the roadside was carrying the body of a dead fighter, much of his head blown away. The rebels gathered, shouting “God is great.”
At the Port Brega hospital, fighters wept over the casualties. Two bodies covered with blankets in the back of a pickup were delivered to the morgue with their socks pulled off, their belts undone and their pockets emptied. Their thumbs and toes were tied with gauze to keep their hands and feet together in preparation for burial.
Opposition leaders denied that Kadafi had taken total control of Ras Lanuf, insisting that their fighters retained key positions in some neighborhoods and that government forces were concentrated at the refinery.
The apparent rebel setbacks in eastern Libya came after Kadafi’s government reportedly regained control of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli.
“All military and security operations are completed in the town,” Kaim told reporters, quoting a dispatch from Libyan armed forces.
Kadafi’s supporters plan to hold a victory celebration Friday at the same time that some opponents of the regime have vowed to take to the streets of the capital in protest after Friday prayers.
In Misurata, a rebel-controlled city of 500,000 about 130 miles east of the capital, residents worried that Kadafi’s wrath would soon be upon them as a siege continued there.
A doctor reached at the central hospital said the city had enough insulin to treat its diabetic patients for one more week and that 1,500 cancer patients were in danger of running out of medicine. But morale remained high.
“We are under siege,” said Dr. Ayman Abou Shahma. “The city is closed off, but we are OK. We are not afraid for ourselves. We were afraid for 40 years. We worry about our brothers in Zawiya now.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said dozens of civilians had been killed or wounded in the fighting in the east over the last few days, including at least 55 treated at a hospital in Ajdabiya, 100 miles east of Ras Lanuf.
Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Zucchino from Benghazi.
Times staff writers Luis Sinco in Ras Lanuf, Henry Chu in London and Sergei Loiko in Moscow, and special correspondent Sihem Hassaini in Tripoli, contributed to this report.