Libya regime claims counter-offensive

TRIPOLI - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gathafi have recaptured a string of key towns, state television said in claims quickly denied by rebels as heavy gunfire rocked the capital Tripoli.
With battles raging east and west of Tripoli and thousands fleeing the violence, loyalist forces on Sunday were accused of a massacre during an assault on a key city and The Sunday Times said a British special forces unit was being held by rebels in Benghazi.
"Libyan armed forces have taken control of the cities of Misrata (Libya's third city) and Ras Lanuf," a key oil town captured by rebels on Friday, the Allibiya channel said.
Troops also recaptured Tobruk, the television said, adding that there had been celebrations of the counter-offensive in the loyalist strongholds of Sirte - Gathafi's hometown on the central coast - and Sebha in the south, as well as Tripoli.
AFP correspondents and members of the Libyan opposition denied that Ras Lanuf, a key oil pipeline hub, or Tobruk, in the far east of the country on the main artery to Egypt, had been recaptured.
"It's not true. The region is under control from Ajdabiya to the Egyptian border," Fateh Faraj, a member of the rebel-appointed council in Tobruk said by phone from the town.
He said the situation was calm and that "absolutely nothing" was happening.
Al-Jazeera television interviewed an opposition official, Mohammed Ali, in Misrata who said there had been no fighting at all in the city and that it remained fully under rebel control.
"Gathafi says they took back Ras Lanuf, but we are still here in Ras Lanuf and not only here, but further (west)," Colonel Bashir al-Moghrabi, one of the rebel leaders in the town, told reporters outside its only hotel.
AFP correspondents are among a number of foreign journalists staying in a hotel on the western outskirts of Ras Lanuf and there were no sounds of any fighting around the town during the night, although there was an air strike after dawn on a rebel checkpoint outside the town.
"There were no clashes during the night, the town is under our control," another rebel fighter said.
The rebels have vowed to march on Sirte, Gathafi's home town about 150km from Bin Jawad, which was the furthest point AFP saw them deployed along the Mediterranean coast on Saturday.
Asked when they would move on Sirte, Moghrabi said: "We don't know. All the soldiers are coming from Benghazi. We are more than 8,000 men."
An AFP correspondent in Tripoli said sustained automatic gunfire erupted early Sunday in the centre of the capital, an area that has so far been relatively free of violence.
It was not immediately clear where the shots were coming from. They were heard at a hotel not far from the capital's Green Square area.
State television showed images of crowds of people in Green Square celebrating the success of the counter-offensive and fireworks being fired into the sky at dawn but the AFP correspondent said the relentless gunfire appeared to be heavy fighting under way rather than celebratory.
The rebels on Saturday declared themselves Libya's sole representative on the world stage.
The national council - the embryonic provisional government - made its proclamation at a meeting in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east of the North African country.
"The council declares it is the sole representative all over Libya," former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil said.
Libya's neighbours Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, as well as France and Italy mobilised Saturday to receive and repatriate a tide of migrants fleeing the unrest. The United States donated $US3 million ($A2.96 million) to the effort.
An estimated 100,000 migrants have crossed the Tunisian border with Libya since February 20, Tunisian officials said.
In comments to British newspaper The Sunday Times, Gathafi repeated that he had no intention of going into exile.
"Does anybody leave his own homeland? Why should I leave Libya?" he said, laughing.
He also denied that his forces had bombed civilian areas.