RAS LANOUF, Libya – A giant yellow fireball shot into the sky, trailed by thick plumes of black smoke after fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi set two oil installations ablaze and inflicted yet more damage on Libya’s crippled energy industry.
In the west, Gaddafi claimed victory in recapturing Zawiya, the city closest to the capital that had fallen into opposition hands. The claim could not immediately be verified; phone lines there have not been working during a deadly six-day siege.
The government twice promised to escort foreign journalists to Zawiya, only to cancel the visit at the last minute. But state TV showed a crowd of hundreds, purportedly in Zawiya’s main square, shouting “The people want Colonel Gaddafi!”
The fall of Zawiya to anti-Gaddafi residents early on in the uprising that began Feb. 15 illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the opposition. But Gaddafi has seized the momentum, battering the rebels with airstrikes and artillery fire and repulsing their westward march toward the capital, Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s successes have left Western powers struggling to come up with a plan to support the rebels without becoming ensnared in the complex and fast-moving conflict. On Wednesday, a high-ranking member of the Libyan military flew to Cairo with a message for Egyptian army officials from Gaddafi, but no further details were known.
President Barack Obama’s most senior advisers met on Wednesday, US time, to outline possible steps to pressure Gaddafi to halt the violence and give up power. They planned to examine the ramifications of a no-fly zone over Libya and other potential military options, US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
A rebel spokesman said they will buy weapons if the international community fails to declare a no-fly zone.
“If a no-fly zone is not imposed, we do have the means to get armaments. We don’t expect any country to refuse to deal with us in terms of an arms sale,” said Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the rebels’ provisional transitional national council.
He did not elaborate or say where the rebels would get the money for arms.
Britain and France are pushing for the UN to create a no-fly zone over the country, and while the US may be persuaded to sign on, such a move is unlikely to win the backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which traditionally object to such steps as infringements on national sovereignty.
Gaddafi said in a Turkish television interview that Libyans would fight back if Western nations imposed a no-fly zone to prevent his regime from using its air force to bomb government opponents staging a rebellion.
He said imposing the restrictions would prove the West’s real intention was to seize his country’s oil wealth.
“Such a situation would be useful,” Gaddafi said. “The Libyan people would understand their real aims to take Libya under their control, to take their freedoms and to take their oil and all Libyan people will take up arms and fight.”
In eastern Libya, an Associated Press reporter at Ras Lanouf near the front line of fighting saw an explosion from the area of the Sidr oil facility, 580 kilometres east of Tripoli.
Three columns of thick smoke rose from the area, apparently from burning oil.
Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman, said the government artillery hit a pipeline supplying Sidr from oil fields in the desert. An oil storage depot also was hit, apparently by an airstrike, he said. Gheriani accused Gaddafi forces of intentionally targeting oil facilities as a warning to Europe that the chaos in Libya will hurt oil supplies.
“Gadhafi thinks he can put pressure on Europe, but I think this is just going to work against him,” Gheriani said. Ras Lanouf is the westernmost point seized by rebels moving along the country’s main highway on the Mediterranean coast. Four bodies were brought to the morgue at the hospital in Ras Lanouf, doctors said.
In Cairo, an Egyptian army official told the AP on condition of anonymity that Maj. Gen. Abdul-Rahman bin Ali al-Said al-Zawi, the head of Libya’s logistics and supply authority, was asking to meet Egypt’s military rulers. There were some diplomatic attempts to calm the crisis.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado met in Lisbon with an envoy from Tripoli to discuss the upheaval in Libya, a statement said. The meeting was arranged in agreement with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and was part of preparations for a meeting of EU foreign ministers later this week in Brussels to discuss the situation in Libya, the ministry said.
The violence in Libya has taken a toll on the country’s oil production. For the past week, government forces and rebels have been battling around several key oil ports east – Brega, Ras Lanouf and Sidr.
At their peak, those three export terminals handled about 715,000 barrels of crude per day, or roughly 45 per cent of the country’s exports, according to figures published in industry publication Africa Energy. A fourth eastern port, Marsa al-Harigah, handled another 220,000 barrels per day. In total, those four ports would then account for almost 60 per cent of the country’s crude exports.
“We were already seeing Libya as pretty much being closed,” said Samuel Cizsuk, Mideast oil analyst with IHS Global Insight in London. “It was only a question of time before the escalating violence would damage oil facilities.”
“Libya has been discounted from the global markets,” he said.