Gaddafi loyalists fight protesters heavily near Tripoli

West Libya in govt hands, east "problematic": official

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Protesters vowing "victory or death" clashed with Muammar Gaddafi's forces heavily near a key oil terminal and gunfire rang out in the capital as opposition protesters gathered on Friday in the strongman's last bastion.

Western Libya is totally in government hands but the east is "problematic," a regime official said Friday, admitting that the town of Brega was in rebel hands and fighting was going on at Ras Lanuf further west.

"The west is totally under government control, the east remains problematic," the official who declined to be identified, told AFP.

"I think that Brega is lost for now," he added, referring to the oil port west of the rebel centre of Benghazi, held by the insurgents since Wednesday in the face of fierce government attacks.

A group of protesters came to blows with loyalists in a street near Tripoli's landmark Green Square, a witness said.

Security forces kept their distance during the fighting by the small group but fired in the air, while blocking access to the area, the witness told AFP by telephone, while police fired tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters in Tripoli's eastern Tajoura neighborhood after Friday prayers, a witness said.

In the Green Square itself, about 100 pro-Gaddafi supporters staged a rally in support of the embattled Libyan leader, who since Feb. 15 has been facing an uprising which has seen him lose control of much of Libya's east.

Protests and clashes

Another small pro-regime protest was held in Tripoli's Algeria Square on Friday, an AFP reporter said.

Forces loyal to Gaddafi have regained control of Zawiyah, near Tripoli, from rebel hands, state television reported.

Rebels in the town vehemently denied the report and said opposition forces were still in control of the town.

A Reuters correspondent heard the thuds of artillery fire and multiple explosions 20 km (12.4 miles) from the oil port of Ras Lanuf on the Libyan coast on Friday.

Rebel soldiers said they have succeeded to control Ras Lanuf after heavy fighting with Gaddafi loyalists, which left at least four people killed, Al Arabiya reported. They claimed they have also controled Ras Lanuf airport. Ras Lanuf is located 660 km (410 miles) east of Tripoli.

Earlier, several hundred opponents of Gaddafi gathered in the Tajoura district of Tripoli and chanted: "Gaddafi is the enemy of God!" a witness said.

The protest started after Friday prayers when worshippers spilled out of a mosque in the center of the neighborhood. There was no sign of any security forces at the protest, said the witness.

Another witness said many of the routes into Tajoura were blocked, and soldiers and armoured personnel carriers were stationed around the neighborhood. There were also men in civilian clothes armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the witness said.


In Tripoli as opponents of Gaddafi prepared to march in the capital after prayers, the authorities prevented foreign media from reporting independently on the protests.

Tripoli has been relatively calm under a deadly crackdown with a reported wave of arrests, killings and disappearances by paramilitaries loyal to Gaddafi’s regime.

Victory or death ... We will not stop until we liberate all this country

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council

A revolt against Gaddafi's four-decade rule has left the eastern side of the country, and several towns elsewhere, in rebel control with the capital now his principal strong-hold.

Several residents of Tripoli have said they are planning to protest against Gaddafi when they leave their mosques after Friday prayers, and that they anticipate a violent crackdown by armed pro-Gaddafi militias.

Overnight, gunshots could be heard outside the Rixos hotel. Ibrahim said the firing was an attempt by the rebels to disturb stability in central Tripoli.

About 130 journalists are in the hotel after being invited to Libya on an officially-organised media visit. Their movements are monitored by officials.

Victory or death

Libyan rebels vowing "victory or death" advanced towards a major oil terminal on Friday, calling for foreign air strikes to set up a "no-fly" zone after three days of attacks by Muammar Gaddafi's warplanes.

Eastern-based rebels told Reuters they were open to talks only on Gaddafi's exile or resignation following attacks on civilians that have provoked international condemnation, a raft of arms and economic sanctions and a war crimes probe.

"Victory or death ... We will not stop until we liberate all this country," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council told supporters of a two-week-old uprising that has shaken Gaddafi's grip on the North African oil producer.

Ahmed Jabreel, an aide to Abdel Jalil, said if there was any negotiation "it will be on one single thing -- how Gaddafi is going to leave the country or step down so we can save lives. There is nothing else to negotiate."

Rebel volunteers defending the opposition's expanding grip on a key coast road said a rocket attack by a government warplane just missed a rebel-held eastern military base which houses a big ammunition store in the town of Ajdabiyah.

"We're going to take it all, Ras Lanuf, Tripoli," Magdi Mohammed, an army defector, fingering the pin of a grenade, told Reuters at the rebels' front-line checkpoint.

No talks

"If there is any negotiation it will be on one single thing -- how Gaddafi is going to leave the country or step down so we can save lives. There is nothing else to negotiate," Jabreel said.

"We are not going to negotiate any political solution. We want him put on trial, but if we don't give him an exit, we know more people will be killed," he said in al-Bayda, a coastal city in rebel-controlled eastern Libya.

The council has called for U.N.-backed air strikes against what they say are African mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi. Warplanes raided eastern towns on Thursday after launching a ground assault on Brega on Wednesday that rebels repulsed.

"I don't think Gaddafi is thinking any more about getting the east of Libya back. He is trying to keep whatever he has in his hands and find a political solution," Jabreel said.

Asked about Brega, Jabreel said: "On the ground, people are in control. We are saying we need airstrikes to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. With this, people will be able to defeat Gaddafi for sure."

"We have the weapons, the support, we have almost half of Libya that we can defend, so we are convinced that we can defeat any movement Gaddafi may make," he added.

Consensus

Rebels have pushed the front line west from Brega and Gaddafi's forces have retreated to Ras Lanuf, 660 km (410 miles) east of Tripoli, rebel commanders and soldiers said.

"The military council in Benghazi started organizing themselves, they have not taken any decision to move to the west but they are organizing themselves so they can be ready for any development in the coming days," he said.

A council spokesman announced on Wednesday that Abdel Jalil would chair the 30-member body that will represent those rebelling against Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

But the spokesman said the council, which wants to move to Tripoli once Gaddafi falls, was not an interim government.

Jabreel, formerly a Libyan diplomat based in New York, said Abdel Jalil had been travelling around towns in the region to build support and a consensus about the council's plans.

"Everyone is saying the same thing. We want a constitution that divides between the three authorities, a civil participative state that is respected and respects other members of the international community," Jabreel said.

Rebel council spokesman Hafiz Ghoga has accused several African countries of sending troops to support Gaddafi and said there was evidence that Algeria, a fellow North African state, was playing a role. But Jabreel trod more cautiously.

"There is no proof at this stage that any government has been involved. I met some of the mercenaries a couple of years ago, they were given Libyan nationality," he said.

"That is why, when you see them, they don't look Libyan but have Libyan papers. The recruitment started a few years ago without the cooperation of any government," he added.

He also said there was stability in the eastern region, which has a history of revolting against Gaddafi's rule and which fell into rebel hands swiftly after protests erupted in mid-February.

"Security-wise things are very stable. We have not seen any instability in this part of Libya. People are very happy, very safe. There have been no clashes," Jabreel said.

The military council in Benghazi started organizing themselves, they have not taken any decision to move to the west

Mustafa Abdel Jalil