* Anti-aircraft gunfire and explosions heard near Benghazi
* Government set deadline for rebels to end oil blockade
* Nascent army takes on experienced militia
BENGHAZI, Libya, March 22 Libyan troops fought
with rebels occupying oil ports on Saturday after fighters
attacked an army base where military reinforcements were
preparing for an offensive to break the blockade, local
Anti-aircraft gunfire and explosions were heard late at
night and again after dawn on Saturday in Ajdabiya, the hometown
of rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran, near the main eastern city of
The central government in Tripoli gave Jathran a two-week
deadline on March 12 to end a blockade of three oil ports or
face a military assault.
Last Sunday, U.S. forces stormed a tanker that had made it
as far as the eastern Mediterranean after loading crude at one
of three ports Jahtran's men have occupied.
On Saturday morning, troops loyal to Jathran attacked an
army camp which had been reinforced after the government issued
its threat of a military offensive, residents said.
"You can hear heavy shooting at several places in Ajdabiya,"
said a resident. Casualties were reported on social media but
Reuters was unable to get immediate confirmation from hospitals.
Jathran's movement could not be reached and there was no
State news agency LANA only ran a brief story late on
Friday, with the army's chief of staff warning citizens not to
approach any military installation.
The town is divided between Jathran supporters and those who
fear his oil blockade will lead to state collapse.
The weak government in Tripoli is unable to control dozens
of militias who helped oust former leader Muammar Gaddafi but
then kept their weapons to grab power and oil.
Analysts say the nascent army, sill in training, will
struggle against Jathran's forces which gained much experience
in helping to overthrow Gaddafi during the NATO-backed uprising.
Jathran's movement says it seized three eastern oil ports to
demand regional autonomy and a greater share of oil wealth.
(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Ulf Laessing;
Editing by Robin Pomeroy)