RAS LANOUF, Libya – With fierce barrages of tank and artillery fire, Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists threw rebels into a frantic retreat from a strategic oil port Thursday in a counteroffensive that reversed the opposition’s advance toward the capital of Tripoli and now threatens its positions in the east.
Hundreds of rebels in cars and trucks mounted with machine guns sped eastward on the Mediterranean coastal road in a seemingly disorganized flight from Ras Lanouf as an overwhelming force of rockets and shells pounded a hospital, mosque and other buildings in the oil complex. Doctors and staff at the hospital were hastily evacuated along with wounded from fighting from the past week.
The opposition, however, made some diplomatic gains. France became the first country to recognize the rebels’ eastern-based governing council, and an ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government was planning “targeted operations” to defend civilians if the international community approves. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would meet with opposition leaders in the U.S., Egypt and Tunisia.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam vowed to retake the eastern half of the country, which has been in opposition hands since early in the 3-week-old uprising.
“I have two words to our brothers and sisters in the east: We’re coming,” he told a cheering crowd of young supporters. The son depicted Libyans in the east as being held “hostage” by terrorists.
Gadhafi’s government sent a text message to Tripoli residents, warning imams at mosques against allowing protests after prayers today. The message quoted Saudi cleric Sheik Saleh Fawzan, a member of the Saudi Supreme Scholars Council, as saying it was “unacceptable” for any imam “who incites people (or) causes disturbances of the society in any mosque.”