BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi attacked the oil export terminal of Brega in the first sign of a counter-offensive by Libya’s leader in the rebel-controlled east, which rebels said they had repulsed.
Sanousi Jadran, a rebel volunteer fighter, said Gaddafi’s forces backed by foreign mercenaries had hit the town early in the morning.
“They bombarded us with heavy weapons including air strikes,” he told Reuters. “You see the Israeli attacks on Palestinians? This was worse.”
At a news conference in Benghazi, the rebel National Libyan Council called for U.N.-backed air strikes on foreign mercenaries used by Gaddafi against his own people.
Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the council based in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, told a news conference Gaddafi was using “African mercenaries in Libyan cities” which amounted to an invasion of the oil producing North African nation.
“We call for specific attacks on strongholds of these mercenaries,” he said, but added: “The presence of any foreign forces on Libyan soil is strongly opposed. There is a big difference between this and strategic air strikes.”
“The call will be on the United Nations and on any organization supporting the February 17 revolution to have air strikes on the places and strongholds of the mercenaries ... used against civilians,” Ghoga said.
A former Libyan justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, will be chairman of the National Libyan Council which will have 30 members and be based in Benghazi for now but would later move to Tripoli, said Ghoga.
Another coalition member said there were no plans to set up a separate eastern oil marketing unit as this would divide Libya. An official in a state owned oil company in east Libya had said that such a plan was under consideration.
Arab television and rebel officers said earlier the Libyan military operation was successful but a spokesman for the opposition coalition in Benghazi said Gaddafi forces had fled.
Anti-Gaddafi forces have been firmly in charge of eastern Libya up to Brega and some areas beyond, since shortly after anti-government protests erupted in mid-February.
“They tried to take Brega this morning, but they failed. It is back in the hands of the revolutionaries. He (Gaddafi) is trying to create all kinds of psychological warfare to keep these cities on edge,” Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, told Reuters.
“We are probably going to call for foreign help, probably air strikes at strategic locations that will put the nail in his (Gaddafi’s) coffin,” he said.
On reports of violence in nearby Ajdabiyah, he said the town was “basically stable and our people are grouping to deal with any major assault. For now, it is still just hit and run.”
Libyan state television said Gaddafi forces still controlled the airport and seaport at Brega, contradicting rebel accounts.
Coinciding with the offensive, state television broadcast images that it said showed security officers killed in the east. It showed about 10 corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and with pools of blood around their heads.
The assaults appear to have been the most significant military moves in the east by Gaddafi since the uprising began two weeks ago and set off a confrontation that Washington says could descend into a civil war unless Gaddafi steps down.
Brega residents also said the offensive had been repulsed.
“Gaddafi forces attacked the Brega oil terminal and the airport and they held them for a couple of hours. The youth of Brega heard about it on al Jazeera, organized themselves and started attacking them back,” Fatma told Reuters by phone.
“They took back the oil facilities and the airport and managed to shoot down a helicopter. Gaddafi forces were pushed out six kms down the coast road west of Brega where they are still fighting them,” she said, declining to give her full name.
Her account was confirmed by resident Idriss Ben Hmeid, an oil engineer.
Early reports said 14 were dead in Marsa El Brega, that random bombardment of the town was taking place and more than 500 army vehicles were involved in the operation.
“It’s true. There was aerial bombardment of Brega and Gaddafi’s forces have taken it,” Mohamed Yousef, an officer in Ajdabiyah, 75 km (45 miles) from Brega, said earlier.
A Reuters witness said an anti-aircraft gun installation had been newly set up on the sea front in Libya’s second city of Benghazi, its guns pointing out to sea. One man was also standing with a shoulder launch missile system.
Within an hour of the reported offensive, new roadblocks were erected around Benghazi.
At the courthouse on Benghazi’s seafront, used to administer the city, a rebel official addressed a crowd, saying: “Brega city was attacked by Gaddafi forces, and our revolutionary forces from Ajdabiyah repulsed them and freed Brega.”
“Gaddafi forces fled west. The revolutionaries killed about 10 of Gaddafi’s forces and arrested many more,” he told a crowd of about 2000 who chanted “God is Greatest.”
Hundreds of armed volunteers amassed at the main road into Benghazi, some planned on staying to defend while others planned to go to Brega. “I’m waiting here to get to Brega, I’m ready 100 percent,” said Ahmed Ali, 19, with a new semi-automatic rifle.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Benghazi and Maria Golovnina in Tripoli, Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood