Posted by: Schuyler R. Thorpe | June 22, 2011

Libya Rebels Claim Early Victories; Gadhafi Denies It Vigorously

Libya’s rebels claim resurgence; government denies

MISRATA, Libya – From the east and west, working with NATO air strikes, resurgent rebels battled Libyan government forces on Sunday at flashpoints along the Mediterranean coast, rebel commanders reported. The government said their victory claims were “wishful reporting.”

Insurgents had reported fighting street by street to retake the Mediterranean port city of Zawiya, 18 miles (30 kilometers) west of Tripoli, a prize that would put them within striking distance of the capital and cut off one of Moammar Gadhafi’s last supply routes from Tunisia.

But government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late Sunday Gadhafi forces had driven off the attackers, and reporters taken to Zawiya saw secure streets and the green national flag flying over a central square. The insurgents, for their part, claimed a high-ranking Gadhafi commander was badly wounded in the fighting.

“The wishful reporting of some journalists that the rebels are gaining more power and more control of some areas is not correct,” he said.

The rebel thrust at Zawiya and reported movements farther east — near Misrata and Brega — suggested the stalemated uprising had been reinvigorated, and that Gadhafi’s defenders may become stretched thin.

“Over the past three days, we set fire under the feet of Gadhafi forces everywhere,” Col. Hamid al-Hasi, a rebel battalion commander, told The Associated Press. He said the rebels attacked “in very good coordination with NATO” to avoid friendly-fire incidents. “We don’t move unless we have very clear instructions from NATO.”

In addition, the NATO blockade of ports still under government control and alliance control of Libyan airspace have severely crimped the North African dictator’s ability to resupply his forces. And his control has been hard hit by defections from his military and government inner circle.

NATO, meanwhile, has stepped up bombing of Gadhafi’s compound in the center of Tripoli, striking it again on Sunday, along with a military airport in eastern Tripoli. The government did not immediately report casualties or damage.

The rebels’ Transitional National Council scored a political success, meanwhile, winning recognition from the United Arab Emirates, adding a wealthy, influential Arab state to the handful of nations thus far accepting the insurgents as Libyans’ sole legitimate representatives.

The rebels had first taken Zawiya, an important oil port, in early March but were driven out by a government counterattack two weeks later.

In a surprising show of resilience, rebels regrouped and rearmed for their drive on Zawiya in an offensive that began on Saturday, according to an opposition spokesman based in London. On Sunday, Kamal, a rebel fighter from Zawiya who would give only his first name, said about 30 of his fellow fighters had been killed and 20 wounded in the fighting.

Speaking with the AP by telephone, he claimed the city’s western Mutred and Harsha districts were under rebel control. But later Sunday government officials took reporters from Tripoli to Zawiya to show that the city was under government control. Some rebel fighters were besieged just outside Zawiya, said government spokesman Ibrahim.

In the eastern Libyan rebel center of Benghazi, meanwhile, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani claimed that a Gadhafi commander, the high-ranking el-Khouwildy el-Ahmeidy, was critically wounded in a NATO air attack late Saturday as he rushed to Zawiya. That report could not otherwise be confirmed.

Fighting also continued near the country’s main port of Misrata, a western redoubt of the rebels, who control about a third of eastern Libya from Benghazi.

From Dafniyah, just west of Misrata, rebel units were moving farther west toward the city of Zlitan, said rebel Abdel-Qadir Fastouka. “This is to gain some territory and to try to put up barricades along the coast,” he said.

The rebel forces in Misrata have kept a large government force tied down besieging the city, 125 miles (210 kilometers) east of Tripoli. Government troops under the command of Gadhafi’s sons Khamis and al-Moatassem and top aide Abdullah al-Senoussi have killed nearly 40 rebel fighters in intense shelling over the past three days.

Doctors at Misrata’s Hikma hospital said six people were killed in Sunday shelling of the city and 16 were wounded. One was a civilian woman killed when a Grad missile crashed through the roof of her home.

The doctors refused to allow use of their names, fearing retribution.
Further clashes were reported farther east, around the oil port of Brega, but conflicting rebel accounts left a confused picture.

Meantime, a new front could be opening in an unexpected southern Libyan salient as well, as residents reported growing anti-Gadhafi sentiment in the once-quiescent city of Sabha. Young men and members of a big anti-government tribe were protesting in the streets and readying their weapons — some brought in from rebel forces in the north _to join the fight.

The lightly populated south of the country was long believed solidly behind Gadhafi. Much of the population in Sabha, for example, was originally from Chad, Niger and Sudan, brought to Libya by Gadhafi in the 1980s. They were given government stipends and jobs in return for mercenary support of his regime.

Many of those men now have gone north to fight with Gadhafi forces, leaving behind heavily armed and restive young men who are native to the region and the anti-Gadhafi Awlad Suleiman tribe, the largest in the city and a force throughout the country.

Reports filtering belatedly out of Sabha said protesters had set up checkpoints in a main residential district, Souk al-Namla. Last Wednesday, security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowd, sparking a bloody clash. Residents said they feared Gadhafi was readying a mercenary force in the north to return to Sabha and subdue the uprising.

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