Libyan rebels regain ground near oil port

By Alexander Dziadosz

AL-ARBAEEN, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed back toward the contested oil port of Brega on Wednesday, regaining mostly desert territory lost to Muammar Gaddafi’s army the day before.

At the tiny outpost of al-Arbaeen, half way between Brega and rebel stronghold Ajdabiyah, on the Mediterranean coastal road, rebels returning from the front reported rocket duels close to the port.

The rebels had clearly made ground after retreating at least 40 km on Tuesday but it was impossible to verify accounts that they were back close to sparsely populated Brega, which sprawls across about 25 km (15 miles).

The conflict in the east has reached stalemate with Western air power preventing Gaddafi landing a knockout blow and the rebels’ rag-tag army unable to push closer toward Tripoli.

Rebel fighter Ali Jomaa said fighting with mortars and Russian-made Grad rocket batteries was going on near Brega, focus of a week-long battle.

Another rebel, Mabrouk Osman, said Gaddafi’s forces were concentrated in New Brega, a residential area close to the Mediterranean coast in the strung-out settlement.

Confirming reports from NATO that government troops were sheltering in residential areas to dodge Western air strikes, Osman added: “They have entered residences there so the aircraft cannot bomb them.”

Rebel Idriss Abdel Karim, who said he had returned from the front less than two hours previously, told Reuters: “The rebels are on the outskirts of Brega. Gaddafi’s forces are inside…God willing, we are going to try to enter Brega today.”

But, close to nightfall, there was no word of breakthrough.

Karim joined a chorus of complaints about lack of support from NATO warplanes. “They are scared of the NATO airstrikes but NATO doesn’t bomb anything in the first place.”

Fighting along the open desert road is extremely fluid and territory has been lost and won very quickly.

Mohamed el-Masrafy, a member of a rebel special forces unit, said clashes began at 6 a.m. (12 a.m. ET) after Gaddafi’s forces were resupplied with ammunition and tried to resume their advance eastwards out of Brega.

By late afternoon, there was little sign of fighting even around 15 km from Brega, with only occasional sounds of rockets and artillery.

COMPLAINTS ABOUT NATO

As rebels in pick-ups piled with weapons headed west from Ajdabiyah and civilians fleeing the fighting passed them in the opposite direction, anger mounted over alleged lack of air strikes by NATO.

Like other rebels, Hossam Ahmed, a defector from Gaddafi’s army, expressed frustration at the lack of NATO action. “There have been no air strikes. We hear the sound but they don’t bomb anything,” he said.

Another rebel, Khaled al-Obeidi said: “What has NATO done, what has NATO bombed?”

“What is NATO waiting for? We have cities that are being destroyed. Ras Lanuf, Ben Jawad, Brega, and Gaddafi is destroying Misrata completely,” said Said Emburak, 43, a resident of Ajdabiyah.

Rebel army leader Abdel Fattah Younes has accused NATO of being too slow to order air strikes, saying Gaddafi’s forces have been allowed to slaughter civilians in the besieged and isolated western city of Misrata.

NATO denies the pace of air strikes has abated since it took over from a coalition led by the United States, Britain and France on March 31.

“Libya must be 800 miles wide and in all that air space we are dominating, so perhaps, and I am not criticizing anyone, in one or two areas, if they don’t hear us or see us, I can understand how that might lead to a lack of confidence,” Rear Admiral Russell Harding, NATO’s deputy commander of operations in Libya, told a news conference at NATO’s southern European headquarters in Naples.

(Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Libyan rebels regain ground near oil port