TRIPOLI, Libya – Government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured a key oil port and pushed toward Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown in a seesaw Saturday for both sides in the bloody battle for control of Libya.
With the Gadhafi regime’s tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital “will be killed for sure,” one rebel said after nightfall.
The rival successes – by Gadhafi’s forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over the port of Ras Lanouf – signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.
Early today, heavy machine-gun fire erupted in the Libyan capital of Tripoli as hundreds of Moammar Gadhafi’s supporters poured into the streets.
Libyan authorities said the unusually heavy gunfire was celebratory, claiming that government forces had retaken Ras Lanouf. But residents of Ras Lanouf said today that the opposition remained in control of the port.
Also on Saturday, witnesses said a Libyan jet fighter crashed near Ras Lanouf. They displayed pictures showing the pilot’s body and twisted wreckage from the plane. The cause of Saturday’s crash couldn’t immediately be determined.
Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya with 25 tons of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.
The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Gadhafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office. Hundreds have been killed.
Gadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.