Libyan Rebels Battle to Retake Oil Town of Ras Lanuf
Libyan rebels battled troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi outside Ras Lanuf on Friday, finding themselves on the back foot and outgunned a day after the regime recaptured the key oil town.
As the two sides exchanged rocket and shell fire east of town, fighter jets screeched over rebel positions on bombing runs, hitting a building used as a checkpoint and setting ablaze an oil storage tank at a nearby refinery.
Another strike hit rebel positions 15 kilometers east of town, the juddering blast sending a huge plume of sand and smoke into the sky.
There were no reliable estimates of total casualties in the fighting, but an Agence France Presse reporter saw rebel soldiers ferrying at least five corpses back from the front and a medic said 10 people had died on Thursday.
"We've seen many people dead behind the front line, but because of the firing we can't get to them," said Doctor Awad el-Ghweiry, whose makeshift clinic treats troops from both sides a few kilometers behind rebel lines.
Rebels had been sending trucks to round up fighters and bring them forward to challenge for the town, which was retaken on Thursday by forces loyal to Gadhafi's regime one week after it fell to the revolt.
But, shortly after the air strike, around a dozen rebel vehicles appeared to be pulling back from an area 10 kilometers east of the town. It was not immediately clear whether they were regrouping or retreating.
"I saw the plane come in from the west. It dropped three bombs, one (to) two kilometers to the west of here, one on the checkpoint and one on the oil refinery," said Abdul Rahman, an engineering student and rebel volunteer.
Rahman took up a Kalashnikov rifle and came from the rebel-held city of Benghazi to join the revolt, but his comrades were having a hard time of it under clear skies, perfect for the regime's air power.
An AFP reporter saw the bomb hit the checkpoint, and afterwards flames and a long plume of thick black smoke could be seen rising from the oil refinery, the second time the key facility had been hit in the fighting.
Earlier, rebels fired a salvo of at least 12 Katyushas from a multiple rocket launcher mounted on the back of a truck, and what rebels said were loyalist army shells and Grad rockets were heard exploding further west.
Shelling was continuing against rebel positions eight kilometers east of Ras Lanuf, which sits on the coast road between western Libya -- still largely in the regime's hands -- and the rebel-held east of the country.
"We don't know exactly what is happening in Ras Lanuf, but we've heard there is still fighting," said Salem Abdulrahman, a bearded young fighter in fatigues and a keffiya scarf, driving a pick-up carrying an anti-aircraft gun.
"So we're going up there. We're going to fight, and we're going to win," he declared, as cars and pick-ups ferried fighters to the front, hoping to stop Gadhafi consolidating a hold on the town and its key oil facilities.
"We didn't get any orders to come up, but we're coming anyway. There are some of Gadhafi's guys in Ras Lanuf and we hope to get them out," said Saleh Massoud, in a truck of rebels with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back.
One rebel commander claimed his troops had driven the army from Ras Lanuf overnight, but a medic in contact with fighters on the ground said they were outgunned there and down to isolated pockets of resistance.
"At the moment it's 10 dead and dozens injured from Thursday's fighting, and that's likely to rise significantly. We believe there are many more bodies in the area," Doctor Salem Langhi told AFP from the front line town of Brega.
"We have been told by the rebel fighters that there are still pockets of resistance in Ras Lanuf, and there is still some fighting, but as of now the army is in control of the area. They have total supremacy."
Pro-Gadhafi state television said Thursday loyalists had "purged" Ras Lanuf.
In rebel-held Benghazi the opposition "government" -- the interim national council -- described the situation in Ras Lanuf as "fluid", and argued that Gadhafi does not have enough troops to hold any territory he might capture.