Key victory for Gaddafi as rebels flee army onslaught
Opposition fighters forced to abandon vital oil port as troops storm town
MUAMMAR GADDAFI scored two major triumphs yesterday as opposition fighters abandoned the important oil port of Ras Lanuf in the east of the country, and his troops swept through Zawiyah, the only town west of Tripoli still in rebel hands before Wednesday night.
Out-gunned civilian irregulars and defecting army units, who had defiantly held Ras Lanuf against a vastly better-equipped enemy, fled as the ever-intensifying onslaught against them reached a violent crescendo.
Even Col Gaddafi's navy joined the fray, bombarding the coast from requisitioned oil tankers. By nightfall, the town appeared to have fallen, handing Col Gaddafi a significant victory and a bridgehead to push deeper into rebel territory and towards the rebels' capital of Benghazi.
Meanwhile, the government was finally confident enough of its long drawn-out victory in Zawiyah to take journalists to the town yesterday morning.
The pockmarks of heavy calibre rounds were visible in the suburbs. Over the past six days the town has been relentlessly bombarded by scores of tanks. Residents claimed troops were taking away those suspected of having taken part in the fighting.
"Pro-Gaddafi forces have raided homes in the town and arrested many people," said one.
In Ras Lanuf the collapse in the rebels' morale was evident. Fighters frenziedly leapt over each other to find places in pick-up vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns that roared eastwards to Benghazi. Tempers were fraying and fights erupted as the rebels turned their anger on each other.
As loyalist tanks advanced through the desert, residential areas of Ras Lanuf came under attack for the first time. A rocket landed close to the town's hospital, sending staff scurrying outside in panic.
"They are using planes, tanks and rockets to strike at us, but we're not turning back," said Moatez Hasi, a medical student. "We're going to win."
But moments later, the hospital was evacuated, with staff and patients squeezing into vehicles, leaving just one doctor behind. A rocket landed at a nearby mosque among praying fighters, partially decapitating one of them.
"We have fought day and night, but Gaddafi is too strong for us," said Fathi al-Refadi, a civilian volunteer.
Commanders tried desperately to marshal their men for a last stand, while an imam in a pick-up barked instructions through a loudhailer.
The men around him barely reacted, their emotions frayed. Military officers had brought a veneer of co-ordination to the disorderly ranks and rushed a number of T-34 tanks to the front yesterday morning. But it was too late for Ras Lanuf.
Back in Tripoli, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Col Gaddafi's sons, said: "I have received thousands of calls asking for help, and my answer is two words: we're coming."
An emergency shipment of humanitarian supplies has been dispatched by the Irish government to the border between Libya and Tunisia in response to the escalating crisis in the region.
Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, last night also announced €250,000 in funding to help the International Organisation for Migration transport people back to their home countries.