Rebels console their colleague who lost a relative during fighting near Bin Jawwad, Libya, on Tuesday. (AP)
Ras Lanouf (Libya), March 8 (AP): Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi hammered rebels with rocket barrages and airstrikes today, trying to check their advance out of the Opposition-held east of Libya towards Tripoli. At least 20 were wounded, some of them seriously.
On another front, government forces were reportedly battering down resistance in the closest rebel-held city to Tripoli, Zawiyah. A government official claimed Gaddafi loyalists had recaptured the city, but some residents reported that rebels still held the citys main square amid a heavy barrage of residential areas. The city was sealed off and phone lines have been cut, making it impossible to verify the account.
All told, the government seems to have gained the upper hand for now in its counteroffensive against the rebels over the past few days. But the battle is far from over and could be drawn out into a long and bloody civil war.
Gaddafis forces have brought overwhelming force from the air to try to beat back the rebels in the east seeking to march on Tripoli and on the ground to try to retake control of Zawiyah, just 48km west of Tripoli.
The one thing that seems to hold potential to tip the scales in the rebels favour is international intervention. The US says it has not ruled out using some type of military force against Gaddafi and with its allies, it is considering imposing a no-fly zone over the North African country to stop air attacks on the rebels.
In the east today, government forces unleashed a heavy barrage of rockets on a rebel contingent that tried to move out from their position at the oil port of Ras Lanouf. At least 20 wounded were rushed to the hospital in the town, some of them with legs lost and other serious injuries.
I was hit in the arm and leg, my friend was wounded in the stomach, Momen Mohammad, 31, said while lying in a hospital bed.
The fighting began when the rebel forces advanced west out of Ras Lanouf towards Bin Jawwad, a small town 600km east of the capital, fighters said.
Earlier in the day, warplanes launched at least five new airstrikes near rebel position in Ras Lanouf, one hitting a two-storey house in a residential area, causing some damage. None of the strikes appeared to cause casualties, suggesting they were intended to intimidate the fighters, according to an Associated Press reporter who saw the strikes.
The anti-regime forces were not taking any chances and were spreading out deep inside the desert around the area in small groups.
Over the past few days, rebels moved out of their stronghold in the east, capturing with relative speed the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf.
But they were met with superior firepower and airstrikes when they tried to push westward and beat a fast retreat to Ras Lanouf over the past two days.
The rebels seem to have reached a point of their campaign where they need to figure out how they could organise resupply lines and avoid becoming easy targets for warplanes in their march across the open desert region with little cover.
Zawiyah, on Tripolis western doorstep, is the most significant position the Opposition has held in the largely Gaddafi-controlled northwest of the country. After repelling several attacks the past week, the city has come under the heaviest onslaught yet since the weekend, believed to be an elite brigade commanded by one of Gaddafis sons, Khamis.