Ferocious street fighting, air strikes in a heavily populated city and a siege with terrified families held hostage: these were the violent and chaotic scenes yesterday as Colonel Gaddafi's regime began its offensive to claw back the land lost to Libya's revolution.
The target of the attack was Brega, a city lying on the coastal plain that marks a key strategic coastal route to Benghazi. The attack and reports of advances by the regime's forces spread panic in Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya", where members of a newly formed administration asked for immediate international help.
As his forces were advancing, Colonel Gaddafi delivered a furious speech in the capital, Tripoli, lashing out at the US, UK and other states pressing him to step down, branding protesters "terrorists of al-Qa'ida" and vowing retribution. "We shall," he declared, "fight to the last man and woman."
But on the ground, his bravado was not matched by events. After a day of fierce clashes, the Gaddafi loyalists had been driven into Brega's university complex surrounded by rebel fighters, where they held more than 100 people, including children, the elderly and women, families of teaching staff and workers, as "human shields".
Later in the evening the regime forces began to move out of sections of the university, while some of the trapped civilians fled to safety in the campus.
Although the attack had been contained, there were strong indications that the regime had indeed planned to launch a major offensive with an attempt to seize control of the local airport giving it the means to fly in reinforcements.
There had been recent signs that the regime, instead of imploding under siege as some accounts have suggested, had consolidated its position and was preparing to strike back at its enemies. The Independent reported from Brega yesterday that an assault appeared to be imminent, with Gaddafi loyalists carrying out probing sorties and taking up advanced positions outside the city – a key production area for oil and gas.
A force of regular Libyan soldiers, militias and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, in convoys of trucks and commandeered private cars, went into the airport and the oil refineries just after 3am. Another unit attempted to cut off the main highway while a third began to move towards the next city, Ajdabiya. At the same time there was an air strike from a Libyan air force Mirage fighter-bomber on the compound of a German company which, local people say, was being used as a makeshift camp for the dispossessed, but the regime maintains was a training centre for rebels. This was the first of several missile attacks, the last one near the university in an attempt to disperse revolutionary forces surrounding Gaddafi loyalists.
Brega had been defended by a relatively light force of rebels and they were soon falling back in the face of concerted fire from regime forces using automatic rifles and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at close quarters. On a number of occasions mortar fire was called in from fields behind the city as well as rounds from anti-aircraft artillery being used as a ground weapon.
Groups of rebel fighters in cars and lorries, some wearing green headscarves of shaheeds (martyrs), were rushing up along the highway from Benghazi to Brega. There were constant cries of Allahhu Akhbar and shouts that "Gaddafi will be defeated". Some fighters, bandoliers slung around their waists, crouched with their guns on sand dunes, pointing at smoke plumes rising out of Brega.
Coming in the opposite direction, seeking urgent help, was Mohammed Sultan, who had been among those trying to stem the regime assault. "We have light weapons, but light weapons do not work," he cried in frustration. "They are hitting people with anti-aircraft weapons. They are hitting us with more force."
At the airport Ali Sliman, another revolutionary fighter, was experiencing the full force of the enemy fire.
"I was lying on the ground trying to use my AK but there was machine-gun fire coming from two directions," he recalled. "Then I heard whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, there were these shells flying over my head. They landed behind us. One hit a car and it was completely destroyed."
But with the arrival of support from surrounding areas, the rebels began to slowly force out the Gaddafi troops. "Our reinforcements arrived but theirs didn't," said Ibrahim Idris Ali, one of a small number in the ranks of the revolutionaries who has had previous combat experience as a gunner in the Libyan army until he joined the protests nine days ago.
A piece of shrapnel had hit Sgt Idris Ali in the shoulder, but, after treatment at the New Brega Hospital, he was anxious to get back to the fight. "I need to help our people with my experience," he said. "I have to go to the refinery now, there is a big fight going on there, it would be a very difficult place to carry out an operation."
But the skirmish at the refinery was by then almost over. Khalid Qwafi, an executive with an energy company, Lifeco, believes he may have played a part in ending the firefights by telling the regime's troops: "There is a huge amount of ammonia in here, one spark and whole of Brega will go up. We will die, but do you want to die as well?" There was, in fact, a comparatively small amount of ammonia in storage, but, said Mr Qwafi, his bluff paid off.
The dead and the maimed were being ferried to New Brega Hospital in cars, pick-up trucks, a few carried on shoulders. A crowd had gathered outside and each arrival was greeted with cries of anger as well as sorrow.
Dr Namr al-Saadi, with bloodstains on his green gown, shook his head. "This is terrible, terrible. They have been shooting at ordinary people. Not fighters, ordinary people. We have had a lot of artillery, air bombs, but most of the injuries are gunshot wounds, to the head, to the torso, to the back."
Soon after he spoke there was a loud thud as another missile landed, the crowd looking up anxiously at an aircraft streaking off high above. This was followed by noise of artillery fire.
The rebels had by now also brought up their heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery, which had been placed around the university and the regime troops. But, the fighters insisted, all the firing had been incoming from beyond the building. "We are desisting," said Yunus Hadi, a bearded young man in a Barcelona football shirt carrying an RPG launcher. "We do not want to hurt innocent people."
Fifteen people were reported to have died in the fighting and around 43 injured. The firefights continued into the night. In the gathering darkness more volunteer fighters were arriving from Benghazi shouting slogans of victory. But to the west, in regime-held territory, there was also movement, positions being taken up. For now, at least, the rebels appeared to have held Brega.
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