• Report eight SAS soldiers being held
  • Gunfire erupted in Tripoli this morning
  • Ghadafi confirms 3 Dutch soldiers captured

A BRITISH SAS unit was being held by rebel forces in Libya after a secret mission to put British diplomats in touch with leading opponents of Libyan leader Moamar Ghadafi, The London Sunday Times reported, as unrest continues to rage across the country.

Gunfire erupted in Tripoli – a Ghadafi stronghold – early Sunday morning, as rebels made their way to the capital city which has largely avoided the violence being waged throughout Libya, Al Jazeera television reported.  Residents told Al Jazeera they could hear gunfire coming from the downtown area. It was not clear who was responsible for the gunfire.

Earlier, The Sunday Times revealed the capture of an elite group of British soldiers – of up to eight men – as they escorted a junior diplomat through rebel-held territory in the east of Libya.  The unit was on a secret mission to put British diplomats in touch with leading opponents of Ghadafi, the British newspaper report said.

Sky News defense correspondent Niall Paterson later said: “Neither the Foreign Office nor Ministry of Defence are as yet saying anything about this matter. But people I have spoken to give me no reason to doubt the Sunday Times report.”

A successful conclusion to the incident was expected to occur, Sky News reported, with Paterson saying: “The feeling in London is that the rebels who have taken the SAS members and junior diplomat are simply making a point. There is no feeling this will end badly.”

The news came as Ghadafi confirmed that three Dutch soldiers had been captured in his hometown of Sirte during a botched attempt to evacuate two civilians, a Dutch engineer and one other European, by navy helicopter last weekend.

The Libyan strongman told French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche the trio were “prisoners” and their capture was “normal.”  He also said that he welcomed investigators from the United Nations and African Union to Libya.  “I would like that an investigatory commission of the United Nations or the African Union comes here to Libya. We will let this panel work unhampered.”

Ghadafi loyalists have been accused of bombing cities and shooting at unarmed civilians as troops and rebels in both eastern and western parts of the country waged ferocious battles, with hospitals reportedly overrun with casualties Saturday and one doctor alleging a “massacre.”

Some of the fiercest fighting came in the western coastal town of Zawiyah, about 48km west of the capital Tripoli.  In yesterday’s assault, tanks manned by loyalist forces rolled into the city and began attacking everything in their paths, including private homes, according to numerous reports.

A doctor there said, “This was a real massacre. The situation is catastrophic. They killed many people. They killed my daughter.”  Sky News reported that a column of tanks headed towards Martyrs Square in the center of the city and the hospital was overrun with casualties.  Residents also said that Ghadafi’s soldiers stormed homes and killed occupants to get sniper positions on the roofs, according The Times.

One of two armored brigades believed to have been involved was said to be the elite Kharmis Brigade, led by one of Ghadafi’s sons.  But despite the attacks, rebel leaders claimed they remained in control.  There was confusion over the exact death toll, but AFP reported at least 30 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the fighting, bringing the death toll from two days of battles in the coastal town to 60.

Elsewhere, in the east of the country, rebels said they had captured the key oil port town of Ras Lanuf, where eight people were believed to have died.  Rebel flags were displayed over a major intersection in the area and there was reportedly no sign of pro-Ghadafi soldiers.

The anti-government forces there said they shot down a Libyan Air Force plane that crashed in the nearby desert, according to CNN, which also reported the headless bodies of two pilots were found at the site.  Various reports from Ras Lanuf also said rebels there were heading towards Sirte.  “They are regrouping there. They are very proud of all the gains they’ve made — they say they are going straight to Sirte, and after Sirte to Tripoli,” an Al Jazeera correspondent said.

Al Jazeera reported that clashes between pro- and anti-Ghadafi tribes had already begun in Sirte. In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, witnesses said Ghadafi forces had bombed an arms depot killing at least 32 people, according to medics.  “We’re having problems at arriving at an exact number of dead as several bodies were torn apart by the explosions,” Hussem al Mejri, a doctor at Benghazi’s al Jala Hospital, said.

At the same time, a self-proclaimed national council – the opposition’s newly formed government – held its first formal meeting in Benghazi and declared itself the sole representative of the war-torn country.  “The council declares it is the sole representative all over Libya,” former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil told a news conference.

Abdel Jalil, one of the first high-profile Libyans to defect from Ghadafi’s government, was appointed chairman of the 30-member body. The council also announced the creation of an executive committee to “manage the crisis” and be responsible for foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, Libya’s neighbors Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, as well as France and Italy mobilised yesterday to receive and repatriate a tide of migrants fleeing the unrest. The United States donated $3 million to the effort.

The first two of four US military flights carrying 312 Egyptian refugees home from Libya arrived in Cairo early this morning, a US official said. The military planes had taken off earlier from Djerba airport in Tunisia.  In Tunisia, officials said an estimated 100,000 migrants have crossed the Tunisian border with Libya since February 20.

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