TRIPOLI, Libya — Fugitive leader Moammar Gadhafi urged his followers to fight on Monday in a brief message of defiance that carried wider resonance after twin attacks on a key oil hub and fierce resistance in a loyalist stronghold by fighters believed led by the former Libyan ruler’s son.
The back-to-back strikes at the Ras Lanouf oil facility — killing at least 15 anti-Gadhafi forces — showed that blows can still be inflicted deep within territory held by the Western-backed opposition, which is struggling to break through the last Gadhafi bastions.
Opposition reinforcements, including convoys of pickup trucks mounted with machine-guns, converged outside the loyalist-held town of Bani Walid for a possible intensified assault after several failed attempts to drive out pro-Gadhafi forces. One opposition commander claimed Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam is leading loyalist forces massed in the town, about 90 miles (140 kilometres) southeast of Tripoli.
It’s unlikely that pro-Gadhafi fighters can withstand a sustained siege on the town. But it’s unclear whether the showdowns in the last loyalist strongholds — including Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte — will mark a crippling end or open a new phase of an underground insurgency and hit-and-run attacks against Libya’s new leadership.
“We will not be ruled after we were the masters,” said the brief statement attributed to Gadhafi that was read on Syria’s Al-Rai TV by its owner Mishan al-Jabouri, a former Iraqi lawmaker and Gadhafi supporter.
The message described Libya’s new leaders as “traitors” who are willing to turn over the country’s oil riches to foreign interests.
“We will not hand Libya to colonialism, once again, as the traitors want,” said the statement, which pledged to fight against the “coup.”
The firebrand words from Gadhafi contrast sharply with the staggering losses for his regime in recent weeks, including being driven from the capital Tripoli and left with only a handful of strongholds.
Gadhafi’s whereabouts are unknown, but his followers claim he is still in Libya. Some of his family members have fled to neighbouring Algeria and others to Niger, most recently his son al-Saadi.
In a central Tripoli square — once the site of pro-Gadhafi rallies and renamed after the revolution Martyr’s Square — more than a thousand people danced and sang. Vendors sold popcorn and cotton candy, and a giant inflatable slide was set up for kids to play on.
At one end of the square, a large stage had been set up at the foot of the towering stone walls of the old town. A giant red, black-and-green banner — the colours of the former rebels’ tricolour flag — was festooned across the top.
Although Gadhafi’s opponents now hold sway over most of Libya — and remain backed by NATO airstrikes — there are signs that the Libyan strongman’s backers can still strike back.
At the important oil terminal at Ras Lanouf, suspected loyalists staged back-to-back attacks that began with saboteurs setting fires and then shifted to a convoy of gunmen riding in from the desert.
Col. Hamid al-Hasi, the commander for anti-Gadhafi forces in eastern Libya, said a group of 15 employees set fire to the facility, located on the Mediterranean coast about 380 miles (615 kilometres) southeast of Tripoli.
In a possibly co-ordinated attack, the port was then targeted by a convoy of armed men apparently based in a refugee camp about 18 miles (30 kilometres) south of Ras Lanouf.
The supervisor of the Ras Lanouf hospital, Dr. Ahmad El-Gnashi, said a total of 15 guards were killed and two injured.
Former rebels, meanwhile, have been facing stiff resistance from Gadhafi supporters in Bani Walid since last week.
“The forces are not from Bani Walid but from all over Libya,” said Mubarak al-Saleh, an opposition political envoy from Bani Walid who claimed Gadhafi’s son Seif is in charge of loyalists in the town. “We lost many people in the battle.”
Dozens of cars loaded with Libyan families and personal belongings streamed out of the town in anticipation of a fresh assault.
“The fighting will be very bad,” said Fadila Salim as she drove out of Bani Walid. Her husband, Mohammed Ibrahim, said there is no electricity, no water and shops are running out of food. He said many are “stuck in their houses and afraid to leave.”
Khairiyah al-Mahdi, a 40-year-old housewife, was fleeing the town along with her husband, six daughters and two sons.
She said her house was among the first to fly the revolution’s tricolour flag when Libyan fighters pushed into Bani Walid over the weekend. But deteriorating living conditions, threats from Gadhafi supporters and heavy clashes in the town prompted her family to flee.
“We left Bani Walid because Gadhafi loyalists in control of the local radio announced through airwaves that anyone helping the rebels or part of them will be killed,” she said. “A lot of people are scared and now leaving.”
The main battle front in Bani Walid is now a bridge that links the town with the port city of Misrata to the northwest. Gadhafi loyalists have covered the pavement with oil slicks and fuel spills to hinder vehicles trying to cross into the city centre.
A rebel commander, Abu Ouejeila al-Hbeishi, said Gadhafi snipers have taken up positions on roof tops, including on a hotel, an ancient castle and an administrative building in the town centre. Loyalist forces also fired Grad rockets and mortars at revolutionary fighters on the northern edge of Bani Walid, where al-Hawaishi said some 2,000 former rebels have gathered.
NATO, which has played a key role in crippling Gadhafi’s military forces since intervening in Libya’s civil war in late March, has kept up its attacks on remaining pro-Gadhafi sites. The military alliance said its warplanes hit targets Sunday in Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, including a military logistics facility and three surface-to-air missile systems.
The Misrata Military Council said clashes inside Sirte between Gadhafi loyalists and opposition backers has left at least three people dead.
Al-Shalchi reported from Wadi Dinar, Libya.