Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched counter-offensives against three rebel-held towns on Sunday as the popular uprising escalated into open warfare.
The resilience of Gaddafi’s forces in the face of the widespread insurrection and their ability to counter-attack will increase fears that Libya is heading for a protracted civil war rather than the swift revolutions seen in Tunisia and Egypt.
Gaddafi’s troops, backed by tanks, artillery, warplanes and helicopters attacked the towns of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli, and positions near the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, 660 km (410 miles) east of the capital.
Government spokesmen said Gaddafi’s forces won a series of swift victories, but while there was fierce fighting in places, many of the towns remained in rebel hands, Reuters reporters at the scene and witnesses said.
Gaddafi loyalists were nevertheless jubilant over the reports and poured into the streets at daybreak and fired automatic weapons into the air.
“These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi,” spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, referring to Libya’s second city, situated in the far east.
While Benghazi remained firmly in rebel hands, government troops pushed the insurgents out of the town of Bin Jawad which they had captured on Saturday, back to Ras Lanuf.
But the rebels regrouped and moved back to the outskirts of Bin Jawad, a small, dusty town sandwiched between the coastal highway and the Mediterranean Sea, 160 km (100 miles) east of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
One fighter returning wounded to Ras Lanuf from the government assault on Bin Jawad was asked what he had seen.
“Death,” he replied, too distraught to say any more.
Rebels surrounded by Gaddafi troops near the centre of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, faced another onslaught on Sunday after repelling two major assaults by tanks and infantry the day before.
“This morning, there was a new attack, bigger than yesterday. There were one and a half hours of fighting … Two people were killed from our side and many more injured,” spokesman Youssef Shagan said by telephone.
“We are still in full control of the square,” he added.
Elite forces under Gaddafi’s son Khamis also launched an assault on Misrata, 200 km (125 miles) east of the capital. “Very, very heavy fighting is taking place now at the western entrance of the town. The fighting started about an hour ago after an attack by brigades belonging to Khamis,” said the resident, called Mohamed.
“They are destroying everything they find. They are using artillery and tanks. Revolutionaries are doing their best to prevent them from reaching the centre of the town,” he said.
Rebels first took Bin Jawad on Saturday but later withdrew. Army units then occupied local homes and set up sniper and rocket-propelled grenade positions for an ambush.
“It’s real fierce fighting, like Vietnam,” rebel fighter Ali Othman told Reuters. “Every kind of weapon is being used. We’ve retreated from an ambush and we are going to regroup.”
Later, a steady stream of rebels heading back west towards Bin Jawad was met by mortar and heavy machinegun fire from government forces in the town.
The rebels said they had shot down a helicopter on Sunday and a Reuters correspondent was shown the wreckage of a warplane on Saturday that rebels said they had brought down.
Doctors at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 22 wounded had arrived from the fighting. A French journalist was shot in the leg, a doctor said, and four rebels were seriously wounded and unlikely to survive.
Rebels in Benghazi captured members of the British special forces 30 km from the city, but said authorities were treating them well and hoped to resolve the issue shortly.
The Sunday Times earlier reported a British Special Air Service (SAS) unit had been captured after a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders backfired.
“They (the rebel army) did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes. For our safety we are holding them and we expect this situation to be resolved soon,” a rebel source in Benghazi said.
“I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi. We are in touch with them, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further,” British Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC.
But the insurgents were puzzled by the way the mission was carried out.
“If this is an official delegation, why come with helicopters? Why not say ‘we are coming, permission to land at the airport?’ There are rules for these things,” one rebel source said.
Western leaders have denounced what they call Gaddafi’s brutal response to the uprising, and the International Criminal Court said he and his inner circle face investigation for alleged targeting of civilians by his security forces.
The International Energy Agency said the revolt had blocked about 60 percent of Libya’s 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) oil output. The drop, due largely to the flight of thousands of foreign oil workers, will batter the economy and have already jacked up crude prices abroad