Video: Libyan oil port forms front line of battle

  1. Closed captioning of: Libyan oil port forms front line of battle

    >>> now we turn overseas to the story we've been covering here in libya , the rebels battling for control of that country. they encountered fierce new resistance from gadhafi 's forces in several key oil towns. nbc's stephanie gosk is in the rebel-held town of tobruk. stephanie , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. well, the fighting in the strategic part of libya seemed to have stalled the last couple of days, but today pro- gadhafi forces launched a fierce attack. the rebels holding the small desert town of ras lanuf were hit so hard today by pro- gadhafi forces, there was nothing left to do but turn and run. the government is making its move into rebel-held east libya , and the front line is moving with it.

    >> it's time for liberation. it's time for action. we are moving now.

    >> reporter: in the last week, both sides have fought for control of two of the country's largest oil facilities. it was only a matter of time before it led to this. the ras lanuf oil terminal in flames. on wednesday, libya 's oil minister said production has been cut by two-thirds since the unrest began, but that the government was still firmly in control of the country's resources. not exactly, say these oil workers. this is the oil terminal in tobruk, eastern libya . it's one of the few active ports and refineries. peaceful, operational, and completely rebel-held. the oil is pumped from 300 miles away deep in the desert through this pipe. you can actually feel it coming through here, but they have had to slow down the flow because the oil tankers aren't regularly coming into port. the tankers are slowly returning. two have already left this month carrying 1.6 million barrels, worth more than $160 million. money that used to go to gadhafi 's government. now it is going to the opposition. this man has worked here as a safety specialist for 20 years.

    >> i think the money is going to go to the libyan people. the people who are really in need of the money.

    >> reporter: but in his hands he carries the picture of a young man killed in the battle of ras lanuf, a reminder that just west of here, the fight for control of the oil and the country still rages. the oil workers were so eager to show us they are producing oil they actually gave me some. libya has some of the highest quality oil in the world. they aren't giving much more than this away for free, brian.

    >> all right, stephanie gosk in libya for us tonight. stephanie , thanks.

msnbc.com news services
updated 3/10/2011 7:09:32 PM ET 2011-03-11T00:09:32

Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi drove hundreds of rebels from a strategic oil port in a counteroffensive Thursday that reversed the opposition's advance toward the capital Tripoli and now threatens its positions in the east.

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"I have two words to our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the Libyan leader's most prominent son, told a cheering crowd of young supporters in Tripoli.

The U.S. on Thursday said it would send disaster relief teams to eastern Libya, while Britain and France urged the European Union to recognize the rebels as a government.

But there was no concrete sign of Western moves toward military assistance — such as the no-fly zone that the rebels pleaded for as they retreated through the pancake-flat desert scrubland outside the port of Ras Lanouf, scanning the skies for government warplanes.

The fleeing rebels said government forces showered rockets and tank shells on Ras Lanouf in preparation for a full-scale advance. Lightly armed opposition members sped back to their territory by the hundreds, fleeing eastward in cars and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

Civilian structures, including a large mosque, were destroyed, a human rights activist told msnbc.com.

A rebel official in the town of Ajdabiya inside opposition territory said Gadhafi's troops and tanks battled the insurgents at the western entrance to Ras Lanouf and used gunboats to fire on the rebels from the sea.

"These are tough battles," said Akram al-Zwei, a member of the post-uprising town committee. "We are fighting against four battalions heavily equipped with airpower, tanks, missiles, everything."

A rebel fighter who fled the city after nightfall said it still had not fallen to the regime.

"They are still bombing it from the air, the sea and with rockets, but the ground forces have not come in," Mohammed el-Gheriani said, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle.

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Taking back Ras Lanouf would be a major victory for Gadhafi, reestablishing his power over a badly damaged but vital oil facility and pushing his zone of control farther along the main coastal highway running from rebel territory to the capital, Tripoli.

The rebels' capture of Ras Lanouf a week ago had been a major victory as they pushed along Libya's long Mediterranean coastline toward Tripoli, in the far west of the country. A day after seizing it, their forces charged farther ahead, reaching the outskirts of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and the bastion of his regime in the center of the country.

A rebel governing council spokesman said Gadhafi's air force, army and navy had bombarded Ras Lanouf, targeting the main hospital, mosques and civilian areas.

"The regime that has lost legitimacy is practicing a scorched earth policy," spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said. "We have requested for all steps to be taken to protect the Libyan people. We believe the U.N. can do that."

The main hospital in Ras Lanouf was hit by artillery or an airstrike and the rebels are pulling their staff out and evacuating patients to the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya, said Gebril Hewada, a doctor on the opposition's health committee in the main eastern city of Benghazi.

Control of oil
In the last week, both sides have fought for control of two of the country's largest oil facilities.
On Wednesday, Libya's oil minister said production has been cut by two-thirds since the unrest began, but the government was still firmly in control of the country's resources.

Not exactly, oil workers at the terminal in Tobruk in eastern Libya told NBC's Stephanie Gosk.

It's an active port — peaceful, operational and completely rebel-held. Two tankers have already left this month, one to Italy two days ago, with $160 million in revenue flowing not to the Gadhafi government but instead to the opposition.

"I think the money is going to go to the Libyan people, the people who are really in need of the money," said Anwar Hasan, a safety specialist who has worked in Tobruk for 20 years.

'Civil war,' Red Cross says
The rebel hospital in the eastern town of Brega said four were confirmed dead in the fighting, 35 were wounded and 65 were missing.

Video: Rebel clashes with Gadhafi forces intensify (on this page)

Insurgents also reported an air strike on Brega, another oil port 50 miles east of Ras Lanouf, indicating that Gadhafi loyalists had not only halted a westwards insurgent push in its tracks but were making inroads into their eastern hinterland.

The news came as the International Committee of the Red Cross said Libya was in a state of "civil war" and warned that increasing numbers of wounded civilians were arriving in hospitals in eastern cities.

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ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger called on Libyan authorities to grant the humanitarian agency access to western areas, including Tripoli, and reminded both sides that civilians and medical facilities must not be targeted.

"We have now a non-international armed conflict, or what you would call civil war," Kellenberger told a news conference.

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Gebril Hewadi, of the medical management committee, told Reuters television at least 400 people had been killed in eastern Libya since clashes began there on Feb. 17, with many corpses yet to be recovered from bomb sites.

In the city of Zawiya, not far from the capital Tripoli in the country's west, there has also been fierce fighting as Gadhafi tries to drive out the rebels.

"This is a life or death battle for us, we have nothing to do now but to fight him," a rebel fighter, who gave his name as Ibrahim, told Reuters by telephone. 

NBC's Stephanie Gosk, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Explainer: Intervention in Libya – where they stand

  • United States

    Washington has signaled it will not unilaterally take military action against Libya, fearful of plunging the U.S. into another war with a Muslim nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that a go-it-alone approach could have unforeseeable and devastating consequences.

    Prominent lawmakers including Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain have been pressing the Obama administration to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya to ground Moammar Gadhafi's warplanes and explore other military options, such as bombing runways to stop aircraft taking off.

    But the U.S.-led NATO alliance on March 10 shied away from any military intervention and agreed only to reposition ships in the region and to continue planning for humanitarian aid.

  • Britain

    Britain and France have been preparing a draft resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya to submit to the U.N. Security Council in the event of an "egregious act" against civilians among U.N. Security Council members.

  • France

    France became the first nation to recognize the Libyan National Council, a rebel body fighting to oust Gadhafi, as the legitimate representative of Libya's people. It and Britain have pushed for a no-fly zone. France also reportedly wants to explore the possibility of targeted bombing of Libya as an alternative to imposing a no-fly zone.

  • Germany

    Germany has come out against a no-flight zone over Libya. “We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

  • Russia

    Russia, which has imposed a weapons ban on Libya, depriving Gadhafi’s government of one of its main sources of arms, opposes direct military intervention. As one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Moscow says world powers should not meddle in the affairs of Libya and other African countries. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Western discussions of proposals for a no-fly zone are premature.

  • China

    China, like Russia, opposes direct military intervention. As a permanent U.N. Security Council member, Beijing could veto military strikes in Libya.

  • Arab nations

    The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, considers Gadhafi's regime illegitimate and has expressed support for a no-fly zone.

    The Arab League holds an emergency meeting in Cairo on March 12 to discuss the Libya crisis. If the league’s 22 member countries endorse a no-fly zone, the U.N.  Security Council and NATO could be more inclined to follow suit. The Arab League groups 22 Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

Interactive: Libya uprising: The latest

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