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Rebels deploy around strategic Libyan oil port

Mutinous army units in pickup trucks armed with machine-guns and rocket launchers deployed around the strategic oil installation at Brega today, a day after the opposition foiled an attempt by loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi to retake the port in rebel-held east Libya.

Government warplanes launched a new airstrike on the town in the morning, according to witnesses. It was not clear what they targeted, but it was likely an airstrip that belongs to the huge oil complex on the Mediterranean coast. There were no reports of casualties.

"We are in a position to control the area and we are deploying our forces," a rebel army officer in Brega told The Associated Press.

Yesterday's attack on Brega, some 460 miles east of Gaddafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli, marked the regime's first counteroffensive on the eastern half of the country, which fell quickly under opposition control after the revolt began on February 15. It was the latest reminder of the deep difficulties the regime's forces — an array of militiamen, mercenaries and military units — have faced in trying to roll back the uprising against 41 years of Gaddafi's rule.

Opposition leaders are pleading for foreign powers to launch airstrikes to help them oust Gaddafi as the United States moves military forces closer to Libyan shores to put military muscle behind Washington's calls for Gaddafi to give up power immediately.

But the Pentagon yesterday tried to play down the idea of using military force in Libya, including a "no-fly zone" that Defence Secretary Robert Gates said would first require attacking Gaddafi's government.

"Let's just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences," Gates told politicians. He added that the operation would require more warplanes than are on a single US aircraft carrier.

Brega is the second-largest petroleum and natural gas facility in OPEC-member Libya and has been held by the opposition since last week.

Amid the chaos sweeping the country, exports from the country with Africa's largest proven oil reserves have all but stopped. Crude production in the southeastern oil fields that feed the facility at Brega has been scaled back because storage facilities there are filling up.

The uprising has sent world oil prices spiking to the highest levels in more than two years, above $100 per barrel. Overall, Libyan crude production has dropped from 1.6 million barrels per day, nearly two per cent of world consumption, to as little as 600,000 barrels per day. Today, oil prices eased a bit to around $101 per barrel from around $102 yesterday.

After yesterday's battle for control of Brega ended with Gaddafi's forces fleeing under rebel fire, mutinous army units arrived in the town today sent from the opposition stronghold city of Benghazi, also in the east.

Dozens of the rebel forces, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and dressed in camouflage army uniforms with checkered keffiyehs around their necks or heads fanned out around the area, which has a port, airstrip, oil installation and a small town. They were backed by at least a dozen pickup trucks with machine-guns bolted onto their beds or rocket launchers in tow.

There was no sign of any pro-Gaddafi forces around Brega and aside from the airstrike, the area was calm. No casualties from the airstrike were reported, but a few rebel fighters were rushed to the hospital with wounds after a mortar they were handling exploded.

"In the last 24 hours, we had a bit of a panic here," oil company employee Osman Rajab told the AP. "Now they (the rebel army) are trying to control the industrial areas," he said, referring to the oil complex.

At the edge of Brega's massive oil facility, the rebel army set up a line of defence, with soldiers, four pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and one truck towing a rocket launcher.

Yesterday's battle was fought primarily by a ragtag popular militia — armed men from nearby towns and cities who rushed in in pickup trucks and overpowered several hundred pro-Gaddafi forces after chasing them into a university on the outskirts of the town.

In the nearby rebel-held town of Ajdabiya, which sent fighters to the battle, morgue officials said the death toll from fighting rose to 14 from at least 10 a day earlier. The western gate of the town was reinforced with heavy weaponry today against any further attempts by government forces to retake control of the area. Rebels positioned a tank, four anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks and four rocket launchers at the gate.

For the past week, pro-Gaddafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities. But the regime has seemed to struggle to bring an overwhelming force to bear against cities largely defended by local residents using weapons looted from storehouses and backed by allied army units.

Pro-Gaddafi forces succeeded over the weekend in retaking two small towns. But the major western rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Misrata, near Tripoli, have repelled repeated, major attacks — including new forays against Zawiya yesterday.

The turmoil in Libya has set off a massive exodus of 180,000 people — mostly foreign workers in Libya — who have fled to the borders, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the AP. European nations and Egypt launched emergency airlifts and sent ships to handle the chaotic crush.

More than 77,000 so far have crossed in Egypt, and a similar number into Tunisia — with about 30,000 more waiting at that western border.

Some Somali and Eritreans workers around Benghazi are feeling "hunted" as they are being mistaken for mercenaries hired by Gaddafi, she said, while regime forces appear to be targeting Egyptians and Tunisians, apparently believing they triggered the uprising.