Fighting intensified Tuesday around Port Brega in eastern Libya as rebel fighters struggled to dislodge government forces from the strategic coastal city and its petrochemical complex.
“It’s a gang fight in there today,” said Omar Rafa Eisa, 26, a uniformed rebel fighter manning a rebel checkpoint southwest of Ajdabiya on the main desert highway leading to the front.
Other fighters described a rocket barrage by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi that ripped through a rebel unit trying to advance into the city. The advance halted as rebels treated and evacuated casualties, they said.
The insurgents said government forces had flown rebel flags from some rocket launchers and vehicles as a ploy to close in on rebel units.
The day’s fighting left at least eight insurgents dead and 45 others wounded, according to Said Mogarbi, who tracks casualties at the main hospital in Ajdabiya, the closest rebel-held city to the front.
The latest rebel assault on Port Brega, which began Thursday, had left at least 32 antigovernment fighters dead and 291 others wounded, according to the hospital’s running tally.
In Tripoli, the Libyan capital, a government spokesman put the number of pro-Kadafi fighters killed at 30. Port Brega has changed hands at least three times since the rebellion began in February, with government forces holding the city since March 31.
“The fighting is getting worse. Ambulances have been carrying out the dead and wounded all day,” said Hamad Muhammed, 30, a rebel posted on the coastal highway between Ajdabiya and Port Brega.
As he spoke, two ambulances roared past, sirens wailing, bound for the hospital in Ajdabiya. In the opposite direction, tractor-trailers loaded with rockets and small-arms ammunition lumbered toward the front.
Also headed to the front were armed rebels in gun trucks, flashing V-for-victory signs and waving the red, black and green rebel flag.
Rebels said land mines planted by government forces continued to delay their advance through Port Brega, about 120 miles southwest of Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital, and about 415 miles southeast of Tripoli. Several played cellphone videos showing plastic antipersonnel mines they said had been cleared around the city.
Several rebel tanks had been disabled by mines, fighters said, and several dozen gun trucks had been badly damaged.
Eisa, the rebel fighter, said government forces had set fire to ditches filled with oil to create black smoke to cover their movements from NATO aircraft.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has stepped up its airstrikes on government targets near Port Brega in recent days. From Thursday through Monday, NATO reported that its planes had destroyed two tanks, two command and control nodes, three rocket launchers, 11 armored vehicles and 22 gun trucks around the city.
The Reuters news service, quoting a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, reported Tuesday that Port Brega had fallen to the rebels. But rebel commanders said their forces controlled only New Brega, a coastal residential area, and were still fighting to seize Port Brega itself, which they had largely surrounded.
“So far, they have a strong defense plan because they’ve been there so long,” Eisa said of Kadafi’s forces.
A NATO spokesman in Naples, Italy, the alliance’s operational headquarters, described the situation as “fluid,” the Associated Press reported.
The fighting in eastern Libya has been stalemated for many weeks. In the west, rebels in the Nafusa Mountains and the coastal enclave of Misurata have made slow progress in their drive toward Tripoli.