Gathafi, rebels battle on military, diplomatic fronts
By Antoine Lambroschini - TRIPOLI
Libyan strongman Moamar Gathafi and rebels seeking his downfall were Thursday battling each other on the military and diplomatic fronts, as oil facilities came under attack on the eastern front.
With fighting raging around the eastern oil town of Ras Lanuf and Zawiyah, just west of Tripoli, Gathafi sent emissaries to Egypt, Greece and Portugal, while members of the rebels' national council were due in Paris after lobbying the European Parliament.
Strong blasts rocked the rebel-held oil town of Ras Lanuf on Libya's central coast on Wednesday, forcing the insurgents back. A mechanic said a pipeline had been blown up.
An oil installation was also ablaze near As-Sidra 10 kilometres (six miles) further west although National Oil Corp boss Shukri Ghanem played down its importance.
"Fortunately, the explosion ... was in a small storage supply facility in Sidra... It has not affected the production," Ghanem said, adding: "It was diesel, it's not crude oil."
He acknowledged, however, that oil output was down more than two-thirds, as crude prices rose in Asian trade, with New York's main contract, light sweet crude for April delivery, rising 46 cents to $104.84 per barrel.
Brent North Sea crude for April rose 26 cents to $116.20.
Gathafi's government has offered a $410,000 bounty for the capture of Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel national council that declared itself the North African country's sole representative in Benghazi on Saturday.
Scores of rebels packed into dozens of vehicles and retreated into Ras Lanuf after several hours of sustained shelling and at least three air strikes west of the town late Wednesday.
It was the second time in as many days the rebels had been routed in front of the government-held hamlet of Bin Jawad, some 30 kilometres from Ras Lanuf.
Fighting in eastern Libya has killed at least 400 people and wounded 2,000 since February 17, medics there said.
In Zawiyah, the battle for control of the strategic oil city was undecided.
"The revolutionaries control the centre of Zawiyah and Gathafi's forces are surrounding it. It's 50-50," a long-term Moroccan resident said after crossing the border into Tunisia.
"There was no one in the streets, the town is completely deserted, and there are snipers on the roofs," he said, adding that he did not know which side they were on.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said: "Zawiyah is under the control of the army but there are still pockets of violence. There have been celebrations for hours."
But foreign journalists were unable to verify the government's claims as they were again unable to access the city.
Three BBC journalists who tried to reach Zawiyah earlier this week were "detained and beaten" before being subjected to a mock execution, the broadcaster said.
"This is yet another example of the horrific crimes being committed in Libya," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
Both sides sent envoys to foreign governments as they stepped up diplomatic offensives amid the increasingly bloody stalemate on the ground.
Major General Abdelrahman al-Zawi, a member of Gathafi's inner circle, landed in Cairo aboard a private Libyan plane, an airport official said.
Although the purpose of Zawi's visit was not immediately clear, it came as Arab League foreign ministers prepared to meet at the body's Cairo headquarters at the weekend to discuss a no-fly zone over Libya.
Elsewhere, a "moderate member" of Gathafi's regime was en route for Portugal, where he was planning to meet Foreign Minister Luis Amado ahead of a series of key diplomatic meetings in Brussels this week, an EU source said.
A Gathafi envoy was also headed to Greece.
Britain and Germany said EU governments should "not work or co-operate" with Gathafi as EU ministers prepared for talks on the North African nation.
In a joint letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle said the crisis in the EU's "southern neighbourhood" presented a challenge on the scale of Europe's 1989 revolutions.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he would receive envoys from the rebel council and hoped to help it politically but Ashton declined to back a call by the European Parliament to extend recognition.
Senior members of US President Barack Obama's cabinet met at the White House to discuss options for action, amid pressure from key European and Gulf allies as well as the Republican opposition.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said a no-fly zone over Libya was still on the table but no decision had been taken.
Meanwhile international officials said they believed it was possible refugees fleeing Libya were being barred from crossing the border into Tunisia.
"Around 3,000 people crossed the border on Tuesday, which is a relatively low figure," compared with the 10,000 refugees that flooded across the border in previous days, said Monji Slim, head of the Red Crescent in Tunisia.
"I have heard that satellite images taken by the Americans and the British show concentrations of people on the Libyan side of the border," Slim added.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Egypt's new government warned of a "counter-revolution", following a series of deadly political and religious clashes blamed on diehards of the former regime.
At least 13 people were killed in fighting between Christians and Muslims in Cairo, and fresh clashes broke out between old regime diehards and pro-democracy activists in the Egyptian capital's landmark Tahrir Square.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Thursday pledged to hold a referendum this year on a new constitution which would devolve power to parliament, a key demand of anti-government protesters.