Rebels fight artillery duel with Libyan army

RAS LANUF, LIBYA—He had a hole in his leg and a smile on his face.

And at the end of a day that saw Moammar Gadhafi unleash heavy armour and worse against rebel forces on three different fronts, opposition fighter Mohammed Altaib shrugged away the setbacks as a minor annoyance.

Shot through the thigh Sunday as he battled pro-Gadhafi forces protecting the desert highway approach to the dictator’s hometown of Sirte, Altaib waved off offers of an ambulance and instead limped toward a car in which a Toronto Star team was travelling.

And on two-hour nighttime drive back to Ajdamiya, the nearest decent hospital in the rebel-held east, Altaib filled in the blanks of a blurry battle that appeared Sunday to have stalled the revolution’s drive toward Tripoli.

“Helicopters, tanks, artillery, rockets, snipers — they tried everything to push us back. They even went inside people’s houses and sent the children outside, like human shields, to prevent us from shooting.

“But we held our ground. And we will not stop. We might be killed. But if the revolution fails, we will die anyway. Gadhafi will hunt us down.”

Such bravado is what drove the rebel surge to Ras Lanuf Friday night, capping a gain of 150 kilometres in barely 48 hours against thinly placed Gadhafi soldiers, bringing one of Libya’s most important oil terminals into the hands of the revolution.

But the asset of unbridled enthusiasm now appears to be morphing to liability, as the ill-equipped and largely untrained army encounters the hard armour and superior weaponry of Gadhafi units dug in at Bin Jawwad, 40 km west.

Sunday’s day-long battle ended in stalemate, as wave after wave of rebels in thin-skinned vehicles threw themselves toward a barrage of ground and air fire. The toll on the regime’s side was unknown, but the rebel body count mounted through the day and by nightfall doctors at a triage clinic in Ras Lanuf reported eight dead and more than 60 wounded.

“It was the worst day so far,” rebel ambulance driver Sameh Mohammed told the Star. “It doesn’t matter that we are medics. When we go up to get the bodies, Gadhafi’s people shoot at us, too.”

Other rebel sources in Ras Lanuf acknowledged the day as a strategic failure, saying the revolution’s nascent military command hoped to consolidate gains at the key oil hub and regroup before pushing forward. But when “overexcited” fighters kept on going, others felt they had no choice but to join them in support.

The path was frustrated further by the Gadhafi regime’s increasing use of air power, which on Sunday included a wave of air strikes on the military barracks at Ras Lanuf. Fighter jets also targeted the highway itself in an attempt to forestall the flow of rebels in civilian cars from the east.

Large crowds of fighters milled outside Ras Lanuf clinic, where doctors from other hospitals in the region gathered to help the surge of casualties. One local resident who came in to donate blood turned to journalists to plead for international help.

“Please help us end this now. Tell the world to bomb Gadhafi,” said Mohammed Idris, 50.

“We need help to compete with his jets and helicopters. If this continues oil will go to $20 a gallon. Bomb him and it is over, we will have a free Libya. And you will have friends for life.”

The Gadhafi regime insists it remains in control of the oil hub of Ras Lanuf — an outright lie now apparent to the dozens of foreign journalists broadcasting from the rebel-held town. But with a column of tanks barely 40 km away, many were braced for the Gadhafi counter-offensive to continue.

A similar stalemate was evident Sunday during fighting in the rebel-held towns of Misrata and Zawiya to the west, with pro-Gadhafi forces leading armoured incursions and exacting heavy casualties before withdrawing.

A cacophony of sustained pre-dawn gunfire in Tripoli, meanwhile, was claimed by the Gadhafi regime as celebratory gunfire. But with some of it emanating from the vicinity Gadhafi’s heavily fortified Bab al-Aziziya barracks, speculation was rife that elements within the regime were embroiled in an internal battle.

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