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Rebels halt Gaddafi forces in oil town

Brega (Libya), March 2: In a fierce day-long battle, rebel forces in this strategic oil town successfully repelled an attack today by government-aligned mercenaries backed by artillery and war planes, witnesses in the town said. At least five were confirmed dead and 16 wounded in the fighting, the witnesses said, citing first-hand reports from the hospital.

The attack seemed to be part of a broader government effort to reassert control over strategic oil assets in the eastern part of the country, which has been seized by rebel forces in recent weeks.

The mercenaries attacked at dawn, the witnesses said, arriving in a convoy of cars and pickups and armed with rifles and ageing anti-tank guns. They quickly took the airport and a university in the town, an oil-exporting terminal on the Libyan coast around 804km east of Gaddafi’s stronghold in the capital, Tripoli.

Witnesses said they took hostages at the university and used them as human shields.

But despite hours of shelling and repeated airstrikes, the invaders were beaten back by the end of the day, the witnesses said, as rebel reinforcements arrived from the nearby cities of Ajdabiya and Benghazi.

Throughout the day in Ajdabiya, where rebels have taken control of a large ammunition dump, a ragtag collection of rebel fighters armed with assault rifles and the occasional anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck passed through a green checkpoint on their way to Brega. There was no clear command and control of the forces. Residents of Ajdabiya reported an airstrike in the area, though not in the town.

The town lies on the western approaches to Benghazi, the rebel bastion, where dozens of semi-trained young volunteers similarly stormed out of a military base today, clambered onto a truck and said they were heading — unarmed — to the front line. Other rebel fighters said they were hoping to load tanks on to transport vehicles to join the battle in Brega.

As the International Criminal Court announced it would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Libya’s crackdown on protesters, the country’s leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, delivered a rambling and defiant speech lasting more than three hours, in which he renewed accusations that Islamist forces outside Libya were responsible for the uprising.

He challenged the UN to send a fact-finding mission to confirm his version of events — which contradicts what much of the world believes about the latest outbreak of discontent that has toppled the leaders of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt and threatened others in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere.

He called the rebels holding some cities “terrorists” and said loyalist forces would not surrender. “We will fight until the last man, the last woman for Libya, from north, south, east and west,” he said.

Colonel gaddafi’s defiance seemed to be borne out by a former senior aide, Nouri al-Mismari, his one-time chief of protocol, who said today that the Libyan leader was likely to “fight to the end” rather than step down or commit suicide.

“Power is very important, and he wants to be in power,” Mismari told reporters at a news conference in Paris. “He will fight until the end. He will not believe in exile. He will not step down.”

The developments on the ground came against a backdrop of debate in western capitals about how to maintain pressure on Gaddafi to leave. The notion of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya has failed to draw support from either the US or Russia, and Libyan rebels say they are opposed to foreign intervention in a home-grown uprising against Gaddafi and, increasingly, his sons.

Two American warships sailed through the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean today, Egyptian officials said, while on Libya’s western frontier with Tunisia, an exodus of migrant workers from Libya has reached “crisis point,” with tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Egyptians, unable to travel home.

Britain and France announced today that they would send airplanes and a French naval vessel to take Egyptian migrants home. In rebel-held Benghazi, a council of Opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures is seeking to draw a distinction between airstrikes and foreign intervention.

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