24 Libya rebels killed in fierce fighting in Port Brega
Clashes near the Libyan city of Port Brega left two dozen antigovernment fighters dead Monday in some of the fiercest battles in weeks along the front dividing rebels in the east and Moammar Kadafi’s forces in the west.
The fighting also left 28 rebels wounded, said Dr. Suleiman Refadi, a surgeon at the general hospital in opposition-held Ajdabiya.
The front line between rebel and regime forces lies about halfway between Ajdabiya and Port Brega, the latter an important oil port where thousands of pro-Kadafi troops are said to be dug in.
The opposition has won territory in several pockets in the west, notably the port city of Misurata, just 120 miles east of Tripoli, the capital. But rebels trying to move on from Misurata have also suffered heavy losses in recent days. Some news agency reports Monday suggested Misurata-based rebels were advancing on the government-controlled town of Zlitan, the next objective on the road to Tripoli.
Government and rebel forces have also fought a back-and-forth battle for control of the so-called Berber highlands, which stretch to the Tunisian border southwest of Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
The front in eastern Libya has remained mostly stable for almost three months despite occasional rebel thrusts toward the town and intense aerial bombardments by NATO. British and French attack helicopters have also struck loyalist positions in and around Port Brega in recent weeks.
Rebel commanders have been saying for weeks that an offensive was planned to take Port Brega and push farther west along the coast.
But regime troops have managed to hold out in Port Brega and effectively shell rebel positions to the east. Kadafi’s forces are dug in amid residential and commercial structures, rebel commanders say.
The 4-month-old unrest in Libya has left the North African nation deeply divided and caused thousands of deaths as insurgents fight to oust Kadafi after his more than 40-year rule. Rebels control most of eastern Libya from their stronghold in Benghazi, while Kadafi still holds sway in most of the more heavily populated west, including Tripoli. Fighting has been scattered across various fronts.
Last week, renewed fighting erupted near Zawiya, a major refinery town west of Tripoli. The government says the rebels were routed and the situation is now calm.
The last few days have seen a relative lull in the bombardment of Tripoli, which last week was pounded by aircraft from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Rebel officials said Monday that another longtime Kadafi confidant, Sassi Garada, had abandoned the regime and fled to Europe. Garada had been in charge of security in the Berber highlands, said Guma Gamaty, a British-based representative of the opposition’s interim ruling council. There was no independent confirmation of Garada’s status.
Many former Kadafi aides — including the oil minister and other Cabinet members, diplomats and generals — have defected or abandoned the beleaguered regime.
Also Monday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reportedly said during a visit that the opposition government based in Benghazi was the “legitimate representative of the Libyan people.”
Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.
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