Battle in Libya for Strategic Town Kills at Least 13

Moises Saman for The New York Times

Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi fired tear gas at protesters in Tripoli on Friday. More Photos »

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: March 4, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government widened its counterattack on its rebel opponents Friday, waging fierce battles to wrest control of the town of Zawiya from rebel troops, attacking an eastern oil town and firing on peaceful protesters after Friday prayers in Tripoli, witnesses said.

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Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Police loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi fired tear gas at protesters in Tripoli on Friday.

At least 13 people were reported dead, more than 100 wounded and 65 missing in Zawiya, 25 miles west of Tripoli. A government spokesman said the Qaddafi forces had retaken the city. “It is liberated this afternoon, and we are going to take you there tomorrow to see for yourself,” he said. But several rebels reached by telephone in the evening said that, after considerable bloodshed near the east and west gates to the city, they still held the town.

One witness said the worst carnage occurred after Friday prayers, when a crowd of people decided to march on Tripoli. As they got to the gates, the witness said, the militias opened fire, killing at least a dozen and wounding at least 50.

“We need some help from another hospital because our hospital is too small for 50 people injured here, but the problem is transportation,” this person said. “They shoot even the ambulances that carry the injured. I have seen by my own eyes an ambulance driver shot in the hand.”

One witness called the shooting in Zawiya a massacre. “I cannot describe the enormity of the violence they are committing against us,” he said by telephone, with bursts of gunfire audible in the background. “We want our country to be free.”

Opposition sources confirmed the death of Col. Hussein Darbouk, a senior Libyan officer who defected and was commanding the rebel forces, in the fighting.

Government troops and rebels engaged in a fierce battle for control of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, witnesses said, with thudding explosions heard on the road north of town. All day long, trucks mounted with guns and swarming with rebel fighters raced from the city of Brega, about 25 miles to the east, to the front lines, where they confronted mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The wounded kept arriving into the night at the hospital in Brega, witnesses said.

There were unconfirmed reports of a fire at an oil refinery in Zewietina, a town north of Ajdabiya in the same eastern coastal region, and Libyan warplanes bombed an arms depot outside Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, a rebel spokesman told Reuters.

In Tripoli, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces opened fire on Friday with tear gas and what a witness described as live ammunition to scatter protesters who gathered after noon prayers outside a mosque in a restive neighborhood of the city, chanting slogans and defying the authorities’ attempt to lock down the capital.

Young demonstrators hurled rocks at the militia forces cruising the Tajura neighborhood in blue trucks, but the crackle of fire from what sounded like automatic weapons panicked the protesters and they fled in several directions.

“Everyone was supposed to retreat to the mosque, but they are scared of the killing because they are using bullets,” a doctor in the main Tajura mosque said as some protesters scrambled for cover there. Two people were injured, he said. Witnesses said the militia fired AK-47 assault rifles.

Amnesty International reported that pro-Qaddafi forces had fired on a medical team near the town of Misuratah, wounding two medics who were trying to retrieve a body. “This disturbing assault indicates that pro-Qaddafi forces are prepared to use lethal force indiscriminately even against those whose role it is to care for the wounded and pick up the dead,” the organization said in a statement.

Initially, worshipers in Tajura said they planned to display their opposition to Colonel Qaddafi from inside the mosque, staging a sit-in after the noon prayers that have become a flash point for demonstrations in the uprisings spreading across the Arab world.

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