Qaddafi's forces launch fierce attack on Ras Lanuf

Muammar Qaddafi's forces, with air supremacy and a big advantage in tanks, appear to have regained the momentum in the three-week-old Libyan conflict.

TRIPOLI // Troops loyal to the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi intensified their counterattack yesterday to retake ground from insurgents who appealed to foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone to stop the onslaught.

Government forces, with air supremacy and a big advantage in tanks, appear to have regained the momentum in the three-week-old conflict and if their push proceeds apace, it could overtake sluggish international efforts to halt Col Qaddafi.

The sound of explosions and small arms fire came from Ras Lanuf yesterday as government troops landed from the sea backed by tanks and air power fought to recapture the oil port town.

A large column of black smoke billowed from storage tanks at an oil installation, television pictures showed, after what Arab channels said was a series of government air strikes.

Insurgents withdrew their last main checkpoint in Ras Lanuf yesterday, setting it up 15 to 20 kilometres to the east, but then counterattacked and said Col Qaddafi's forces had withdrawn from the residential area of Ras Lanuf.

"War is always backwards and forwards. God willing, we go forward again," said the rebel Jomaa Irjai, 22, clutching his AK-47 close to the front line.

As a host of international bodies agonise over whether, or how to impose a no-fly zone, Col Qaddafi's warplanes are carrying out air strikes unhindered by insurgent anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of pickup trucks.

Many rebels were angry at international inaction.

"Where is the West? How are they helping? What are they doing," shouted one angry fighter.

Col Qaddafi's son Saif al Islam told the rebels they faced a full-scale attack to crush their uprising, which began after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in neighbouring Egypt a month ago.

"It's time for action. We are moving now," he said on Thursday.

In Tripoli, Libyan security forces used tear gas and fired in the air to disperse worshippers near a mosque before they could even attempt any protest, a Libyan said, citing witnesses.

West of the capital, the revolt in Zawiya appeared all but crushed, with rebels clinging only to parts of the shattered city. Residents described scenes of carnage, with women and children among the dead, but there was no fighting yesterday.

"This is the calm before the storm," a fighter named Ibrahim said by telephone.

"All we want is a no-fly zone. To ban him [Col Qaddafi] from flying his planes. I swear to God, if this happens we will be talking to you from Bab al Aziziyah in a week," he said, referring to Col Qaddafi's compound in the Libyan capital.

The only other rebel holdout in western Libya, Misrata about 200km east of Tripoli, was also calm for now, but rebels said they were expecting an attack to come soon.

As EU heads of government met in Brussels yesterday, Libya's insurgent leader warned that any delay in imposing a no-fly zone could let Col Gaddafi regain control.

"We ask the international community to shoulder their responsibilities," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the National Libyan Council, told the BBC.

"The Libyans are being cleansed by Qaddafi's air force. We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one, we also want a sea embargo," he said.

* Reuters