March 11, 2011 / 4:16 PM / 6 years ago

UPDATE 2-Rebels, Gaddafi forces skirmish over "ghost town"

* Rebel describes Ras Lanuf as "ghost town"

* Rebels massed on east, Gaddafi's forces on west

* Rebels say Gaddafi forces hit refinery, govt denies

* Second oil installation in east Libya hit in week

(Updates with rebels saying no one in full control)

By Alexander Dziadosz

ROAD TO RAS LANUF, Libya, March 11 (Reuters) - Rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi skirmished in Ras Lanuf on Friday night but neither side was in full control of the largely deserted eastern Libyan oil town, rebel fighters said.

Government forces launched a fierce land, sea and air attack to retake the town, the site of a major oil terminal where rebels said storage tanks of a state-owned refinery were hit by a Gaddafi air strike. The government denied hitting the plant.

It was the second time this week an oil installation was hit. Rebels blamed government forces for another air strike that destroyed storage tanks and other facilities at Es Sider further along the coastal stretch where fighting has raged.

Rebels had advanced to the town of Bin Jawad about 60 km (40 miles) west of Ras Lanuf a week ago, but have been driven back across the strip of desert and scrub. Though out-gunned, rebels have kept up stiff resistance.

"Ras Lanuf is a ghost town. There are skirmishes between rebels and Gaddafi forces going back and forth," said rebel captain Mustafa al-Agoury, adding that rebels were positioned on the east and Gaddafi's forces on the west of the town.

Neither side had full control, although Libyan state television said the town was cleared of "armed gangs" opposed to Gaddafi and a spokesman for the rebel movement, Hamid al-Hasi, told Al Arabiya that Ras Lanuf was back in rebel hands.

Asked late on Friday if rebels now controlled Ras Lanuf, rebel Ahmed Abdelmula Zayed said: "No. But God willing we will return." He was among a group of rebels who gave different accounts of the status, indicating the town's uncertain fate.

"They have been going back and forth with heavy bombardment. Gaddafi's philosophy is if you cannot rule it, he's going to burn it. So he is bombarding Ras Lanuf indiscriminately from the sea, from the air and with tanks," a media officer for the rebel movement in Benghazi, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters.

Gaddafi's forces had pushed into the town on Thursday with tanks, landed troops by sea, used gunboats to bombard rebels and sent warplanes to mount air strikes, witnesses said.

Rebels, armed mainly with anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and light weapons, fought back to hold the town, about 590 km (370 miles) east of Tripoli.

PLUME OF BLACK SMOKE

Rebels had earlier on Friday pulled back their frontline checkpoint eastwards from Ras Lanuf, one of several towns with oil terminals that have been targeted by air strikes. So far, only facilities in Es Sider and Ras Lanuf have been damaged.

Rebels told Reuters an air strike by Gaddafi's forces hit storage tanks of Libya's state-owned Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Processing Company (RASCO). Al Jazeera television images showed a plume of black smoke rising from an area of storage tanks.

But state television, citing a military source, denied the armed forces bombed the refinery or residential areas.

To the east, near the town of Uqaylah, there was an air strike in the desert on Friday, witnesses said. A rebel spokesman said another hit Brega, an oil town even further east.

In Benghazi, Gheriani said: "What's happening in Ras Lanuf is a bit like Zawiyah. He shells it heavily, then he drives through the city with tanks and then he leaves, because he does not have enough foot soldiers." Zawiyah is in west Libya and the scene of heavy fighting between rebels and Gaddafi's forces.

Even amid setbacks, some young fighters, speaking a few kms (miles) from the Ras Lanuf front, were upbeat. "War is always backwards and forwards. God willing, we go forwards again," said rebel Jomaa Irjai, 22, clutching his AK-47 Kalashnikov rifle.

But closer to the front, the strain showed earlier on Friday after rebels, mostly riding on 4x4 pick-ups mounted with heavy machine guns, were thrown back by Gaddafi's superior firepower.

"Where is the West? How are they helping? What are they doing?" shouted one angry fighter, while another frustrated rebel responded to a question about the latest events saying: "Why don't you go and ask Gaddafi's forces? They are just over there."

OUT-GUNNED

Rebels have called for the West and other powers to set up a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi's planes and for targeted air strikes. They have been frustrated by the failure of the United States and others to move quickly.

Rebels had enthusiastically welcomed reporters on the front on earlier days, but have become wary of their presence, blaming the media for disclosing their positions.

"There are no photos of Gaddafi's forces. When the media photographs our forces they give away what we have and where we are, and that is why we got pushed back," said rebel Mohamed al-Houni before telling the Reuters correspondent to leave.

There are no foreign media working with the same kind of freedom of movement on the frontline with Gaddafi's forces. Images are generally restricted to state TV, choreographed tours for visiting foreign reporters or shakey video grabbed by mobile phones and sent out to the world by ordinary Libyans. (Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi and Mohammed Abbas in Brega; writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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