Hundreds protest against Gadhafi in Tripoli; 17 die in blast at arms depot

Tripoli, Libya - After a battle in which at least 30 civilians were killed Friday, forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had cornered rebels and claimed to have retaken a key city near the capital.

The rebels, for their part, claimed to have taken Ras Lanouf, a key oil port, while hundreds rallied in the capital Tripoli against Gadhafi. Live ammunition and tear gas were fired to break up the protest, witnesses said.

Friday's assault on Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, appeared to be the strongest yet by Gadhafi's forces after repeated earlier forays against it were beaten back.

An improvised force of rebels had been pushed back to the central Martyrs Square in Zawiya, a rebel spokesman said. "Many people were killed in Harsha, which is now occupied by them," rebel spokesman Youssef Shagan told Reuters by phone, referring to a small town outside Zawiya.

"They shot at civilians. We still control (Zawiya's) central square," he added. "They are four to five kilometres away."

In the morning, troops from the elite Khamis Brigade - named after the son of Gadhafi who commands it - bombarded the city's western edges with mortars, heavy machine guns, tanks and anti-aircraft guns, several residents said.

By the evening, they had also opened a front on the eastern side. Armed Zawiya residents backed by allied army units were fighting back.

"I have been to hospital less than 15 minutes ago," a Zawiya resident identified only as Mohamed told Reuters by telephone. "Dozens were killed and more were wounded. We have counted 30 dead civilians. The hospital was full. They could not find space for the casualties."

Mohamed said the Gadhafi forces used grenade-launchers, heavy machine guns and snipers on the rooftop of a new hotel in the town to fire at protesters while they marched after Friday prayers to demand the fall of the regime.

"People used swords and hunting rifles to defend Martyrs Square. Even mothers used those weapons," he added.

The account could not be independently verified and reports of the death toll in the clash varied widely, with the Associated Press quoting a witness at Zawiya's hospital as saying 18 people had been killed and 120 wounded. Another resident told Reuters that between 40 and 50 people were killed in the clashes.

The commander of the rebel forces in Zawiya - Hussein Darbouk - was among those killed, Alaa al-Zawi, an activist in the city, told the AP. Darbouk, a n army colonel who defected along with other troops in Zawiya early on in the uprising, was shot to death by fire from an anti-aircraft gun, he said.

State-run TV and a source "close to the government" cited by al-Jazeera reported that the city had been retaken by pro-Gadhafi forces. But other accounts indicated control of Zawiya was divided between the rebels and security forces.

East of Tripoli, meanwhile, anti-Gadhafi rebels were on the offensive, attacking a military base on the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, a small oil port on the Mediterranean, about 380 miles from Tripoli.

Rebels attacked Ras Lanouf on Friday afternoon, feeling flush with victory after repelling Gadhafi forces who attacked them days earlier at Brega, a larger oil facility just to the east. Fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and heavy machine guns were seen streaming in pickup trucks and other vehicles from Brega heading in the direction of Ras Lanouf.

They battled with about 3,000 pro-Gadhafi troops, mainly around the facility's airstrip, said a resident of the town. She reported heavy explosions starting around 4 p.m.

Also Friday, forces loyal to Gadhafi fired tear gas at protesterswho marched in Tripoli, calling for the Libyan leader's ouster in defiance of a fierce crackdown by regime supporters in the capital.

More than 1,500 protesters marched out of the Murad Agha mosque after noon prayers in the eastern Tripoli district of Tajoura, chanting "the people want to bring the regime down" and waving the red, black and green flag of Libya's pre-Gadhafi monarchy, adopted as the banner of the uprising.

The protesters transformed a nearby square, tearing down posters of the Libyan leader and replacing them with the flags. They spray-painted walls with graffiti reading, "Down with Gadhafi" and "Tajoura will dig your grave."

But soon after the march began, security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. The protesters scattered, but regrouped to continue their march. Then security forces fired live ammunition, scattering the protesters again - though it was not immediately clear if they fired in the air or at people.

Al Jazeera reported that up to 100 people had been arrested in Tripoli, accused of helping the rebels.

Similar protests a week ago were met by a brutal crackdown, when militiamen opened fire on demonstrators moments after they began their marches, killing a still unknown number. Since then, pro-Gadhafi forces have carried out a wave of arrests against suspected demonstrators, snatching some from their homes in nighttime raids.

Libyan authorities briefly barred many foreign journalists from leaving their hotel in Tripoli, claiming it was for their protection because they had information "al-Qaida elements" plan to open fire on police to spark clashes. They later allowed them to go out in Tripoli.

"I am not afraid," said one 29-year-old man among the protesters. He said in the protests a week ago one of his relatives was shot to death - not by militias, he said, but by a pro-Gadhafi infiltrator among the demonstrations.

"There are many spies among us. But we want to show the world that we are not afraid" he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation.

Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on Feb. 15 and has broken the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control.

In other developments Friday:
  • An explosion at an ammunition depot near Libya's rebel stronghold of Benghazi killed at least 17 people and injured 18, hospital officials said. Dr Habib al-Obeidi, from the city's al-Jalaa hospital, said the blast at a military base also affected a nearby residential area. Other witnesses said two fire engines had been blown up in secondary explosions as emergency services rushed to the area. Al-Obeidi said the blast was triggered when people went into the storage facility to collect weapons, although others have blamed pro-Gaddafi forces for the incident.
  • Interpol delivered a global "Orange Notice" alert for Gadhafi and 15 members of his inner circle to help police worldwide enforce U.N. sanctions. The Paris-based international police agency said information on Gadhafi and the other Libyan nationals would be circulated so that border agents could comply with travel bans and asset freezes set out under United Nations Security Council sanctions. An "Orange Notice" is not an arrest warrant but is issued to help countries track down illegal assets or suspects wanted for extradition.
  • Two Red Crescent medics were wounded by Ghadafi troops as they tried to retrieve a body near Misrata, Amnesty International reported.
  • A Libyan warplane bombed just beyond the walls of a military base used to store huge amounts of ammunition and now held by rebels in the eastern town of Ajdabiya but did not hit it. Gadhafi's air force mounted a similar attack on the facility earlier this week, hitting in and around the base but not striking anything of significance. One rebel Libyan military officer, a defector from Gadhafi's armed forces, said earlier this week he believed the warplanes had missed on purpose because their pilots did not want to kill fellow Libyans.
  • Two vessels carrying 1,300 U.S. Marines docked Friday at an American base on Crete as part of a military build up around Libya, the U.S. Navy said. Souda Bay navy base spokesman Paul Farley said the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce arrived at the base, carrying a total of around 4,000 personnel, including the Marines. The ships docked in Crete two days after 400 Marines, from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, also arrived in Crete. Late Friday, about 100 supporters of Greece's Communist Party rallied in the Cretan city of Hania, near the base, against the arrival of the U.S. forces.
  • Two U.S. Air Force cargo planes also flew blankets, water and other relief supplies to Tunisia on Friday as part of an international effort to help refugees who fled from the fighting in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that in addition to the C-130 cargo planes headed to Djerba, Tunisia, the U.S. Agency for International Development chartered two civilian aircraft to help repatriate foreign workers who have fled Libya.