TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Muammar Gaddafi’s forces battled rebels on several fronts in a worsening of Libya’s crisis on Friday and unrest erupted in the capital when gunmen fired to break up crowds shouting “Gaddafi is the enemy of God.”
Paris-based Interpol delivered a global alert against Gaddafi and 15 members of his inner circle to help police around the world enforce U.N. sanctions aimed at ending turmoil in the world’s 12th largest oil exporter.
Vowing “victory or death,” eastern-based rebels pressed home a westwards push towards Gaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold with an attack on the oil town of Ras Lanuf, which lies on a strategic coastal road, claiming to have taken its airport.
In the west, security forces loyal to Gaddafi launched an offensive to retake Zawiyah, a town near the capital that has for days been defying his rule, and residents said 30 civilians had been killed. Among the dead was the town’s rebel commander.
The rebellion in Zawiyah — the closest rebel-held territory to the capital and also the site of an oil refinery — has been an embarrassment to the authorities who are trying to show they control at least the west of the country.
The government said earlier in the week it was not using military force to retake rebel-held cities, though one official did not rule it out if all other options were exhausted.
Eastern regions of the country, around the city of Benghazi, have already spun out of Gaddafi’s control after a popular revolt against his four decades of rule. The rebels’ grip on the coastal highway appears to be strengthening.
The uprising against Gaddafi, the bloodiest yet against a long-serving ruler in the Arab world, has knocked out nearly 50 percent of the OPEC-member’s 1.6 million barrels of oil per day output, the bedrock of its economy.
The upheaval caused a humanitarian crisis on the Tunisian border where tens of thousands of foreign workers fled to safety with no means on onward transport. An international airlift is gradually reducing the number of people trapped in tent camps.
The rebels earlier told Reuters they were open to talks only about Gaddafi’s exile or resignation, after attacks on civilians that have provoked international condemnation, arms and economic sanctions and a war crimes probe.
“Victory or death … We will not stop until we liberate all this country,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council, told supporters of the two-week-old uprising.
Abdullah al-Mahdi, a rebel spokesman, told Al Jazeera opposition fighters would attack the capital once a “no-fly” zone was enforced by international powers to try to shatter Gaddafi’s grip on the country of six million people.
Western nations have called for Gaddafi to go and are considering various options including the imposition of a no-fly zone, but are wary about any offensive military involvement.
In developments likely to raise concern about dwindling food and medical supplies in rebel-held areas, reports from around the vast country suggested a sharp worsening of a conflict that the West fears could trigger a mass refugee exodus to Europe.
In the east, rebels were attacking a military base on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, an oil port on the Mediterranean, which has a refinery, pipelines and a terminal, and the army responded with artillery fire and machinegun fire from helicopters.
Flashes, thuds and bangs resounded from the battlefield, along with wailing sirens and puffs of smoke in the air.
Rebels said they had captured the airport near the town and intended to push forward towards the military base after dark.
An oil facility at Zueitina, south of the rebel-held city of Benghazi, has been damaged and is on fire, Al Jazeera said, showing a video of black smoke rising from an oil plant.
In Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, pro-Gaddafi forces fought for hours with rebels who have been holding the town centre, two residents told Reuters.
“From 11 a.m. until now Gaddafi’s mercenaries, mainly from Africa, have been opening fire on people here,” said a local man called Ibrahim. “Hundreds of victims are now in the town hospital.”
“We have no choice but to continue our fight against this dictator.”
In Tripoli, shooting rang out across Tajoura district as Gaddafi loyalists broke up a crowd of protesters seeking an end to his long rule and shouting “Gaddafi is the enemy of God!”
The demonstrators spilt out of the Murat Adha mosque after Friday prayers, and several hundred of them began chanting for an end to Gaddafi’s four decades in power.
“This is the end for Gaddafi. It’s over. Forty years of crimes are over,” said Faragha Salim, an engineer at the protest in Tajoura.
Al Jazeera reported that up to 100 people had been arrested in Tripoli, accused of helping the rebels.
Earlier on Friday, rebel volunteers said a rocket attack by a government warplane just missed a rebel-held military base which houses an arsenal in the eastern town of Ajdabiyah.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was concerned a bloody stalemate could develop between Gaddafi and rebel forces. “Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave,” Obama said.
As international efforts progressed to isolate the Libyan leader, Austria widened an asset freeze list to include a top official at the Libyan Investment Authority, Mustafa Zarti, because of possible ties to Gaddafi’s inner circle.
Zarti, 40, will be questioned by Austrian authorities on Friday, interior ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia said.