Libyan government warplanes struck again at rebels clinging to a key oil complex in Ras Lanuf on Monday, sending residents of the desert city into a panic and triggering a mass evacuation eastward.
Fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi remained in control of the desert outpost of Bin Jawwad, which they seized from rebels fighters in a surprise counterattack Sunday. The two sides skirmished Monday along a 27-mile stretch of sand-swept road along the Mediterranean between Bin Jawwad and the oil complex.
Rebels in gun trucks and private cars clogged a checkpoint across from the sprawling oil complex, massing for what they described as an upcoming attempt to retake Bin Jawwad.
Just after 4 p.m., a jet fighter launched a missile that demolished a white Mitsubishi with an explosion that shook the desert floor and struck a Libyan family trying to flee the oil complex.
Hospital workers at the Ras Lanuf Medical Center said they were told that a father, mother, grandmother and three children were seriously injured. The six were taken to a larger hospital in Port Brega, another rebel-held oil city to the east.
Hospital workers there could not be reached to determine the victims’ conditions.
The pickup truck was crushed and bright red blood was smeared on the driver’s door and on both seats. An infant’s red sandals and a child’s sneakers were inside, along with supplies of drinking water, juice packs and snacks.
An oil company security gate entry pass was on the front dash. Rebels said documents inside the car identified the father as an oil company employee in Ras Lanuf.
Ashraf Kawaifi, 32, an engineer for an oil company in the eastern city of Benghazi who is fighting for the rebel cause, said at least some of the family members appeared to be gravely wounded.
“Is this Kadafi’s bravery? A warplane against a family escaping to the east?” Kawaifi shouted in English as rebel fighters cursed Kadafi and displayed the sandals and sneakers.
Other rebels gathered around the crumpled pickup fired automatic rifles skyward, vowing revenge against Kadafi’s men.
Monday morning, frightened families sped away from a residential neighborhood next to the oil complex at Ras Lanuf, leaving it nearly deserted. Journalists said they were ordered before dawn to leave the El Fadeel Hotel in the neighborhood.
Ibrahim Swalem, an engineer at the oil complex, said residents were awakened at 4 a.m. and told to flee because government airstrikes were imminent. Swalem, 57, is one of many employees at the 3,500-employee complex who stopped going to work but remained in their homes. Many decided to leave at first light Monday.
“Safety first,” Swalem said in fluent English. “Our neighborhood is now a battlefield.”
The eastbound lanes of the two-lane coastal highway were lined with cars packed with suitcases, food, water and television sets, bound for Benghazi and other rebel-held eastern towns.
In the opposite direction, fighters hauled more antiaircraft guns and crates of ammunition westward to reinforce rebel positions. Stacks of bottled water and crates of bread and honey were piled at a roadside checkpoint in Ras Lanuf for newly arriving fighters.
Government jet fighters and attack helicopters swooped over the area, drawing fusillades of futile antiaircraft fire from gun batteries dug into the sand dunes and parked along the highway.
“We’re trying to draw them low enough to hit them,” said Col. Mohammed Abaidy, 53, a silver-bearded former Libyan air force air defense officer, shouting to be heard over the roar of a gun battery firing at a distant warplane.
Abaidy acknowledged what the rebels know all too well: Kadafi’s forces have superior weaponry and training. The pro-government fighters pounding his men in Bin Jawwad are backed by artillery, mortars and truck-mounted rocket launchers, in addition to attack aircraft.
The rebels fight with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, recoilless rifles, and outdated antiaircraft guns and armored personnel carriers.
“But we have something Kadafi doesn’t have — we believe in our cause,” Abaidy said.
Some rebel fighters still spoke of retaking Bin Jawwad and pressing on toward Surt, Kadafi’s hometown, just over 100 miles west. Surt, said to be defended by thousands of pro-Kadafi fighters, blocks rebel access to Tripoli, the capital.
But it seemed more likely that the simmering civil war in the east will settle into a stalemate, with neither side strong enough to overwhelm the other.
Opposition forces took control of eastern Libya from Kadafi 20 days ago. The rebels have been attempting to push westward to assist demonstrators battling Kadafi’s forces in Tripoli and other western cities.