Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanouf. (AFP)
Ras Lanouf (Libya), March 7 (AP): Libyan warplanes launched fresh airstrikes on rebel positions around a key oil port today, trying to block Opposition fighters from advancing toward Muammar Gaddafis stronghold in Tripoli.
Rebels in the area said they can take on Gaddafis elite ground forces, but are outgunned if he uses his air power.
We dont want a foreign military intervention, but we do want a no-fly zone, said rebel fighter Ali Suleiman. He added that the rebels can take on the rockets and the tanks, but not Gaddafis air force.
Libya appears to be sliding towards a civil war that could drag out for weeks, or even months, as rebels try to oust Gaddafi after 41 years. Resorting to heavy use of air attacks signalled the regimes concern that it needed to check the advance of the rebel force toward Sirte — Gaddafis hometown and stronghold.
Anti-Gaddafi forces would get a massive morale boost if they captured Sirte, and it would clear a major obstacle on the march towards the gates of Tripoli.
There were no casualties in todays airstrike on Ras Lanouf, which came one day after pro-regime forces pounded opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to stop the rebels' rapid advance towards Tripoli.
Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, said his forces are expecting reinforcements from the east.
The uprising against Gaddafi, which began on February 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
A government spokesman, Abdel-Majid al-Dursi, denied rumours that there had been an assassination attempt against Gaddafi, saying the claims are baseless rumours. The speculation started yesterday, when residents in the capital awoke before dawn to the crackle of unusually heavy and sustained gunfire.
Hundreds if not thousands of people have died since Libyas uprising began, although tight restrictions on media make it near impossible to get an accurate tally. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia — another North African country in turmoil after an uprising in January that ousted its longtime leader.
The turmoil is being felt more broadly still in the form of rising oil prices. Libyas oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest.
The conflict in Libya took a turn late last week when government opponents, backed by mutinous army units and armed with weaponry seized from storehouses, went on the offensive. At the same time, pro-Gaddafi forces have conducted counteroffensives to try to retake the towns and oil ports the rebels have captured since they moved out of the rebel-held east.
An Opposition force estimated at 500 to 1,000 fighters has been cutting a path west toward Tripoli. On the way, they secured control of two important oil ports at Brega and Ras Lanouf.
In and around the government-held town of Bin Jawwad, on the road to Sirte, pro-regime forces were running patrols today and there were minor reports of skirmishes with rebels on the outskirts. Yesterday, battles there killed eight people and wounded 59, said Ibrahim Said, deputy director of Ajdabiya hospital. If the rebels continue to advance, even slowly, Gaddafis heavy dependence on air power could prompt the West to try to hurriedly enforce a no-fly zone.