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Libyan rebels capture British soldiers

Libyan rebels in the country's east capture a British special forces unit as government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli.
Image: People walk inside a destroyed weapons dump near Benghazi
People walk inside a destroyed weapons dump near Benghazi, a rebel-held port, Saturday.Suhaib Salem / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Libyan rebels have captured a British special forces unit in the east of the country after a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders backfired, Britain's Sunday Times reported.

The team, understood to number up to eight SAS soldiers, were intercepted as they escorted a junior diplomat through rebel-held territory, the newspaper said.

The Foreign Office said in a brief statement it could neither "confirm or deny" the report.

Earlier on Saturday the Geneva-based Human Rights Solidarity group, which employs a number of Libyan exiles, told Reuters by telephone that a team of "eight special forces personnel" had been seized by rebels. Both the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Office repeatedly declined to comment on the group's report.

The SAS intervention apparently angered Libyan opposition figures, who ordered the soldiers locked up on a military base, according to the Sunday Times.

Opponents of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fear he could use any evidence of Western military intervention to rally patriotic support away from a two-week-old uprising against his 41-year autocratic rule.

Citing Libyan sources, the Sunday Times said the special forces troops were taken by rebels to Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and epicenter of the insurrection, and hauled before one of its most senior politicians for questioning.

The paper said the junior diplomat they were escorting was preparing the way for a visit by a more senior colleague ahead of establishing diplomatic relations with the rebels.

The Sunday Times said Libyan opposition officials were said to be trying to hush up the incident for fear of a backlash from ordinary Libyans.

Seesaw battle
Earlier, government forces in tanks rolled into Zawiya, the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli, after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured a key oil port and pushed toward Gadhafi's hometown in a seesaw Saturday for both sides in the bloody battle for control.

With the Gadhafi regime's tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital "will be killed for sure," one rebel said after nightfall.

The rival successes — by Gadhafi's forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over the port of Ras Lanouf — signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.

Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, with 25 tons of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.

The crisis in Libya has already deepened far beyond any of the other uprisings this year in the Arab world, as Gadhafi has unleashed a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed.

Gadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.

'The number of people killed is so big'
The storming of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.

"The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big," the rebel in Zawiya said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. The rebels vowed to keep up the fight in the city.

Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. Several fires sent heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers shot at anybody on the streets, including residents on balconies.

The rebels initially retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some ground, according to three residents and activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs' Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city's fringes, sealing off the city's entry and exit routes, the witnesses said. Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Gadhafi's sons who commands it, have been massed outside the city for days.

The pro-Gadhafi forces then blasted Zawiya with artillery and mortar fire in late afternoon before the tanks and troops on foot came in, firing at buildings and people, witnesses said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said "99 percent" of Zawiya is under government control.

"The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now," he said Saturday at a news conference. "We hope by tomorrow morning, life will be back to normal."

The rebels fared better in the east, capturing the key oil port of Ras Lanouf on Friday night in their first military victory in a potentially long and arduous westward march from the east of the country to Gadhafi's eastern stronghold of Tripoli.

Witnesses said Ras Lanouf, about 90 miles east of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, fell to rebel hands on Friday night after a fierce battle with pro-regime forces who later fled.

"Go to Tripoli!" one of the fighters yelled in English.

Another brandished a bayonet, pointed to its blade and said: "I need head Gadhafi! Head Gadhafi I need!"

An Associated Press reporter who arrived in Ras Lanouf Saturday morning saw Libya's red, black and green pre-Gadhafi monarchy flag, which has been adopted by the rebels, hoisted over the town's oil facilities.

One of the rebels, Ahmed al-Zawi, said the battle was won after Ras Lanouf residents joined the rebels.

Al-Zawi, who participated in the fighting, said 12 rebels were killed in the fighting, in which rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns were used.

Officials at a hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya, however, said only five rebels were killed and 31 wounded in the attack. The discrepancy in the figures could not immediately be explained.

"They just follow orders. After a little bit of fighting, they run away," said another rebel at Ras Lanouf, Borawi Saleh, an 11-year veteran of the army who is now an oil company employee.

A witness in Ajdabiya said rebels had begun their march toward Sirte, advancing 50 miles to the town of Nawfaliyah. The witness said he was going to join them and expected fierce fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces.

U.S. airlifts Egyptians home
Four U.S. military aircraft flew 312 Egyptians home Saturday after they fled to the Tunisia-Libya.

Two Marine Corps KC-130s and two Air Force C-130s supported the effort, said the Pentagon.

Jet fighter crashes
Also Saturday, witnesses said a Libyan jet fighter crashed near Ras Lanouf. Pictures showed the pilot's body and twisted wreckage from the plane. The cause of Saturday's crash couldn't immediately be determined.

Pro-Gadhafi forces have launched a number of airstrikes against rebel targets as they seek to put down the 19-day-old rebellion.

In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, funerals were held for some of the 26 people killed in an explosion Friday at a large arms and ammunition depot outside town. The massive blast leveled flattened buildings, cars and trees in an area three times the size of a soccer field.

It also deprived the rebels of arms and ammunition. It was not immediately clear how the depot blew up, but suspicion immediately fell on Gadhafi agents.

Hundreds lined the streets to pay their respects to the dead before starting chants against Gadhafi.