Libyan military forces sock key oil port

Ras Lanuf, Libya (CNN) — The military forces of Moammar Gadhafi on Friday pounded Ras Lanuf, the key oil port once in the hands of rebel forces, and its leadership confidently vowed the retake all territory from the opposition.

Pro-Gadhafi forces cranked up an intense and steady bombardment of the city, believed to be by rocket, artillery and tank fire. A refinery was hit and a storage tank is on fire. Huge plumes of thick, black smoke can be seen.

Dozens of pickup trucks and cars belonging to the opposition are heading away from the city amid fear that Libyan forces are advancing as the bombardment continues. The rebels evacuated to a checkpoint outside the town but that and other rebel positions were targeted by airstrikes.

Rebels claim the eastern city has been essentially empty as civilians fled and opposition forces retreated from sustained attacks. On Thursday, state media claimed that the town was “cleansed” of the fighters.

This reflects the turn in fortunes for Gadhafi’s well-equipped military, who have gained an upper hand after rebel fighters seized ground across Libya.

Along with its offensive in Ras Lanuf, government soldiers beat back rebels Thursday in Zawiya east of the capital, Tripoli.

Zawiya’s Martyrs’ Square was littered with the bombed-out, scorched carcasses of army tanks and other military vehicles. Workers swept up the evidence as Gadhafi supporters chanted slogans and waved green flags.

Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, one of Gadhafi’s sons and a spokesman for the regime, vowed on Thursday to retake other areas in eastern Libya that were controlled by the opposition and warned the international community that Libyans won’t welcome NATO and Americans. NATO is contemplating the establishment of a no-fly zone, but says it needs a clear U.N. mandate to do it.

“I receive hundreds of calls from the east daily and they are saying, ‘Save us.’ They are begging us and pleading for us to save them and my answer is two words. Listen to me and I want those armed groups to listen to me real well, and I want our people in the east to hear this as well: We’re coming,” he said.

Saif al-Islam Gadhafi is one of two Moammar Gadhafi sons who share the first name Saif.

On the diplomatic front, international opposition to Moammar Gadhafi has gained momentum.

The French government on Thursday recognized the newly created Libyan opposition movement as the sole representative of the country and the British foreign secretary spoke to an opposition representative over the phone.

On Friday, the Libyan ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations will call on the United States to follow France’s lead and recognize the opposition as the legitimate representative of Libya.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced plans to meet with opposition leaders when she visits Tunisia and Egypt next week. She said the United States was suspending relations with the Libyan Embassy in Washington, and an administration official added the embassy “must shut down.”

Protests against the 68-year-old Gadhafi began February 15 as anti-government demonstrators sought his ouster after nearly 42 years of rule, and the discontent devolved into a fierce and bloody civil war.

Death toll estimates earlier this week ranged from more than 1,000 to as many as 2,000.

As of Thursday morning, the war had forced out nearly 250,000 people, many of them poor migrant workers who have been stranded at both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders, the U.N. refugee agency said.

( / 11.03.2011)

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