Gathafi troops pound Ras Lanuf
Moamer Gathafi's troops stormed into Ras Lanuf on Thursday as tanks outflanked rebels holding the key oil town, forcing them to retreat east under a hail of rocket fire, AFP reporters said.
Rockets exploded near the town's hospital and a mosque, forcing medics to evacuate hurriedly, as Gathafi loyalists wrested back control of the town and pushed the battle lines deeper into rebel-held territory in the east.
Packed into dozens of pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, rebels fled the town under a continuous barrage of shelling, rocket and sniper fire that swept from the western outskirts of Ras Lanuf to the east.
They had only controlled it for a week.
An AFP photographer saw five Gathafi tanks rumbling along the road through the desert about five kilometres (three miles) east of Ras Lanuf.
"We've been defeated. They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf," said one rebel fighter, dressed in military fatigues, who gave his name as Osama.
A Katyusha rocket screamed down close to the mosque, just minutes after rebels had ended prayers. Air strikes hammered positions east of town.
One projectile smashed through the outer wall of the central residential compound and left smouldering shrapnel in a crater. As the rockets got closer, medics evacuated the hospital and packed into ambulances.
Doctor Mahmud Zubi was the only man left after everyone fled the hospital, his sole companion the body of a man laid out on a stretcher, his nose and the top of his head blown away, and puddles of blood on the floor.
"This man's brains are in a plastic bag. He was killed outside the hospital. He was one of the guards hanging out here all the time. The explosion killed him," the doctor said.
"We have evacuated the hospital. They were shelling us. It's only me here."
At least four people were killed and 35 wounded in the assault, said a hospital official in the town of Brega, further east.
Another medic, Doctor Imed Burghthania, said: "We still have many casualties coming in. More every minute.
"We think there are still a number of dead and wounded remaining in Ras Lanuf but because it is under the control of Gathafi's forces we are not able to get to them," he explained.
Although the overwhelming majority of rebels appeared to be fleeing east, small groups of men were believed to have stayed in Ras Lanuf, hunkered down in buildings and possibly preparing for a guerrilla battle.
Mahmoud Ibrahim, a retreating rebel in his late teens, wept and called on US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene.
"Where's Obama? Where's Cameron? Tell Obama to help us," he sobbed.
At an ambulance way station further east, an AFP reporter saw medics tending an unconscious rebel with two fingers blown off, a bandage on his head and a leg wound. Rebels said he had been caught up in an explosion.
The shelling had crept steadily closer to Ras Lanuf all day, moving in from the west, to the edge of town and then towards the centre.
"Some of us are still there, but a lot of us are pulling out. They're getting too close," shouted one rebel.
In scenes of panic and frustration, one man blamed the attack on talking too freely to journalists reporting live on the ground.
"Please, please stop talking to journalists giving away our military secrets. You're putting our lives in danger. Whoever has an RPG, we need you to go to the front," he shouted into a megaphone.
Two pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns crashed into each other as they revved up in panic to retreat.
"Where the hell are you going? You're going to die a useless death," one rebel shouted at a group of fighters walking head-long into shelling with just Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Jaber, an ambulance driver parked on the roadside west of Ras Lanuf, said the shelling was so heavy it was impossible to recover the wounded.
Gathafi's forces had "even stopped ambulances from getting there. There are injured. We can't reach them," he said.