Libyan Rebels Repel Deadly Gadhafi Offensive, Call for U.N. Airstrikes
Libyan rebels fought intense battles to repel Moammar Gadhafi's forces from the key eastern oil port of Brega Wednesday as the regime's biggest counter-offensive yet left at least 10 people dead.
Opposition fighters said they had finally pushed Gadhafi's men out of the town on the Mediterranean coast after a day of chaotic clashes, even as a government fighter jet fired two missiles near their victory celebrations.
"Brega is liberated. We have forced them to 30 kilometers (22 miles) west," rebel fighter Khalid al-Aqoly told Agence France Presse.
Gadhafi's forces, backed by tanks and heavy weaponry, had attacked at dawn and quickly seized the airport, an oil terminal and a university in Brega, the westernmost town held by the poorly armed Libyan opposition.
While Gadhafi appeared on television to deny there was any opposition to his 41-year rule, the advantage in Brega went back and forth but by the evening the rebels said they had prevailed.
However moments after dozens of men had gathered in a square near the university, flashing victory signs and firing into the air, a fighter jet launched two missiles at them, an AFP reporter witnessed.
The attack caused no casualties but gouged out two craters in a street 15 to 20 meters away.
Rebels chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) ducked for cover and then started firing machine guns at the jet, which streaked low in the sky.
Claiming victory several hours earlier, rebel leaders in the main eastern town of Benghazi said at least 10 people were dead.
"They tried to claim Brega, they ended up with a failure. We kicked them out, the battle is done," said Mustafa Gheriani, the media organizer for the rebels at their headquarters in Benghazi.
"We heard numbers of 10 to 15 martyrs but we are still surveying."
Another huge blast believed to be from an airstrike had rocked the town earlier as rebels surrounded regime fighters who were in the university area and at the gates of the Sirte oil company.
Smoke rose from shell fire and heavy machine gun fire rattled through Brega.
"Now they're limited to the university and the gates of the oil company. Their ammunition is running out. They're firing randomly. We'll take these positions by nightfall," said one rebel fighter who gave his name as Mohammad.
An AFP reporter at one of the two hospitals in Brega, which is 200 kilometers southwest of the rebels' headquarters in Benghazi, saw the bloodied bodies of four young men in a morgue.
Rebel volunteer Mashallah Aqub said: "There are four more bodies in another morgue and at another hospital and other bodies we haven't been able to collect yet."
Anti-regime forces have seized most of the east of the country since the uprising began on February 15 and have taken tentative steps towards setting up a parallel government.
But the opposition forces, mostly comprising military defectors and volunteers, have been watching warily for a fightback.
Oil company official Ahmed Ali said the sound of gunfire had woken him early on Wednesday at his firm's compound.
"I saw mercenaries from Chad who had taken up position at the company gates. I left in a car with a colleague. They stopped the car to search us for weapons before letting us go," Ali said.
A spokesman for the dissidents, Abdel Hafiz Ghoqam, called on "the U.N. or any responsible international body for air strikes on the places and strongholds of the mercenaries."
"We're calling for specific attacks on these strongholds and mercenary forces," he added.
He mentioned Niger, Mali and Kenya as countries from where mercenaries had been recruited as Gadhafi fights to wrest back control of the country.
Meanwhile Gadhafi's forces also launched an airstrike on Ajdabiya, 40 kilometers from Brega, witnesses said.
One witness said the airstrikes had targeted a weapons dump that was also hit two days ago, but residents said it had hit a former army base near the town. There were no casualties, they said.
Gadhafi has lost most of the east of the oil-rich North African country but remains entrenched in the capital Tripoli in the west.