Brega, Libya – Ground and air forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi attacked this key oil terminal city in eastern Libya Wednesday, but were repulsed by a motley army of volunteer fighters who flocked to this strategic coastal town as word of the assault spread.
Hospital officials here said at least six people had been killed in the fighting, and witnesses showed a video purportedly of an injured Libyan Army soldier being treated at the hospital. At least 10 rebel fighters who returned to Ajdabiya were being treated for gunshot wounds at that city's hospital.
The purpose of the pro-Gadhafi forces' attack was unclear — in addition Brega's oil terminal, the attackers also targeted the city's university — but the battle followed what's become a strange pattern: After hours of fighting, Gadhafi's better armed and trained loyalists withdrew without taking control of their likely objective.
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In the western city of Zawiya, fighters said they faced a major assault by Gadhafi's forces Monday night, only to have them back down.
“It was like they were surveying the place. We don't understand what they are doing,” Tarek Zawi, 19, a fighter, said Wednesday by telephone from Zawiya after hearing about the fighting in Brega.
The battle for Brega, however, buoyed the spirits of the disorganized rebels who flocked here after days of mounting frustration at their inability to topple Gadhafi, who remains firmly in control of the capital, Tripoli, about 500 miles west.
In a speech as the Brega battle unfolded, Gadhafi urged his followers to fight for Libya “inch by inch.” He blamed al Qaida for the unrest and said that army commanders had defected to the rebels because “terrorists” had forced them to do so at gunpoint. He denied that government forces had attacked peace protesters.
“This is the Libyan people, standing in defiance, backing their own symbolic leader,” Gadhafi said, as his supporters in the room cheered as if on cue.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Arab League, meeting for the first time since the region exploded in a collective protest movement that's in six weeks forced out the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens several others, suspended Libya's participation and condemned Gadhafi's use of force against civilian protesters. They rejected possible foreign intervention, however, calling the turmoil an internal matter for Libya.
In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama should consider a no-fly zone to stop Gadhafi from using air power.
“A no-fly zone is not a long-term proposition, and we should be ready to implement it as necessary,” Kerry said at a hearing where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified.
But Clinton told the hearing that “we are long way” from a decision on a no-fly zone.
Libyan warplanes took part in the assault on Brega, dropping at least three bombs after Gadhafi's forces found themselves cornered at the city's university. The bombs left vast craters, but it was unclear whether they'd killed or wounded anyone. The attacks did, however, allow the Gadhafi forces to escape, witnesses said.
According to witnesses, the Gadhafi loyalists began their assault at around 6 a.m., arriving in 50 to 60 military vehicles and taking hostages at then university's engineering school. They also moved into the city's port and oil terminal, which controls the distribution of natural gas in the country's eastern, rebel-held area.
As word of the fighting spread, thousands of volunteers poured in from throughout rebel-held eastern Libya to confront the loyalists.
Many of the rebels said they'd learned of the attack through telephone calls and responded out of concern that the first Gadhafi attack into the rebel-held east could make Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the seat of government for the rebel movement, vulnerable to attack.
Many were armed only with handguns — or nothing at all. One man was observed trying to fix a gun with a meat cleaver and a stick. Another tried to fix a looted rocket launcher on the side of the road.
But there were also tanks, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, bazookas and large-caliber guns mounted on the back of Toyota pickup trucks.
Most drove more than two hours through the desert to reach Brega, stopping first at the city of Ajdabiya, where they were greeted by crowds shouting “God is great,” before driving 45 minutes further to the frontlines.
“Everybody decides for himself whether to go or not,” said Khara Mohammed, 25, who carried a machine gun as he was interviewed in Ajdabiya. “Nobody is in charge.”
“I wanted to defend my city, but I didn't have a weapon,” said Mabrouk Yabha, 26, who was being treated with other wounded men in Ajdabiya. “We were walking when we were shot. I saw people dead, but I couldn't tell you how many.”
The attacks from the air were particularly fearsome. “Every time the youth gained momentum, the planes would shoot at them,” said Abdel Fatoori, 47, who witnessed the fighting in Brega.
But by the end of the day, the Gadhafi forces had withdrawn, some to Ageil, 15 miles west of Brega, where fighting reportedly continued, and others to Sirte, 150 miles further west, Gadhafi's hometown and a stronghold for him.
By nightfall, the road from Brega to Benghazi was lined with men returning from the day's fighting. Their mood was celebratory, while in Brega, residents scoffed at Gadhafi's claim that they were al Qaida operatives.
“This is not a weapons storage facility. This is a university,” said Khalid Lagoris, 34, as he stood over two large craters. “Who is al Qaida now? Who is the one on drugs?”
(Youssef reported from Brega, Allam, from Cairo. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)