Yesterday, rebels captured Ras Lanuf, a town 400 miles east of Tripoli, home of a tanker terminal that exports about 200,000 barrels of oil a day as well as Libya’s biggest refinery.

However, both sides have claimed victories elsewhere, and accurate assessments of precisely what is happening are difficult.

Please consider Libya’s Rebels Claim Another Oil Hub in Day of Clashes

Fighting between Libyan rebels and troops loyal to Muammar Qaddafi intensified as the opposition advanced west from the oil hub of Ras Lanuf toward the leader’s hometown of Sirte.

Rebel fighters battled Qaddafi’s troops today as they approached Sirte, 230 miles east of the capital, Tripoli, said Khaled el-Sayeh, a coordinator between the opposition’s military forces and its interim ruling council in Benghazi.

State television reports that Qaddafi’s troops had recaptured Ras Lanuf overnight were false and designed to “bring down the morale of the youths,” el-Sayeh said. The rebels today remained in control of the port, which regime forces shelled with rockets and artillery, the AP reported.

Rebels yesterday took control of Ras Lanuf, 400 miles east of Tripoli, where they shot down two helicopters and a fighter jet. The town has a tanker terminal that exports about 200,000 barrels of oil a day. It also contains Libya’s biggest refinery, with a capacity of 220,000 barrels a day, more than half the country’s total output, according to the International Energy Agency.

Rebel Advance in Libya Set Back by Heavy Assault

The New York Times reports Rebel Advance in Libya Set Back by Heavy Assault

The Libyan military drove rebel forces back along the main coastal road on Sunday, ambushing the advancing militias as they entered the town of Bin Jawwad and pushing them out with tank fire and airstrikes, according to witnesses near the town.

The number of the casualties in the battle was unclear, but it set back the rebels’ advance just a day after they celebrated a major victory in taking the vital oil port of Ras Lanuf. On Sunday, rebel leaders said they were regrouping outside that city and would begin pushing toward Bin Jawwad again.

Just outside the capital, a standoff continued in the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, a day after forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi waged a heavy assault toward the city center and then pulled back to close off all roads out.

Nineteen days after it began with spirited demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, the Libyan uprising has veered sharply from the pattern of relatively quick and nonviolent upheavals that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, the rebellion here has become mired in a drawn-out ground campaign between two relatively unprofessional and loosely organized forces — the Libyan Army and the rebels — that is exacting high civilian casualties and appears likely to drag on for some time.

That bloody standoff was evident on Saturday in Zawiyah, the northwestern city seized by rebels a week ago, where the government’s attacks raised puzzling questions about its strategy. For the second day in a row its forces punched into the city, then pulled back to maintain a siege from the perimeter. Hours later, they advanced and retreated again.

By the end of the day, both sides claimed control of the city.

In Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital, the rebels took further steps toward political organization. Their shadow government, the Libyan National Council, held its inaugural meeting Saturday and appointed a three-member crisis committee.

While the rebels may have a new defense minister in Benghazi, their fighters on the eastern front did not appear to be taking orders from anyone on Saturday as they pushed past Ras Lanuf, an oil refinery town that they retook from Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists on Friday night.

Armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the rebels advanced confidently by car and foot through the desert until a fighter jet was heard. Even a rumor of a jet engine in the distance would send the fighters in a mad dash through the dunes, searching for cover and firing in the air.

Slow, Uneven Progress

The battle for Libya is now 18 days and counting. The rebels continue to gain territory, then give some back only to take it again. Over time however, they appear to be advancing from multiple directions towards Tripoli.

Based on belief that Qaddafi’s top military leaders would turn on him, I initially thought this would all be over in a few of weeks. So far that has not happened. Now with both sides disorganized and with rebels increasingly stretched thin as they capture more territory, how much longer this can go on remains to be seen.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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