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In Libya, Gadhafi still controls air

RAS LANOUF, Libya - Repeated airstrikes by Libyan warplanes yesterday illustrated the edge Moammar Gadhafi holds in his fight against rebel forces marching toward the capital: He controls the air.

Libyan warplanes launched multiple airstrikes on opposition fighters regrouping at the oil port of Ras Lanouf on the Mediterranean coast a day after they were driven back by a heavy government counteroffensive aimed at stopping the rebel drive toward Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold.

One strike hit near a gas station in Ras Lanouf, blasting two large craters in the road and wounding at least two people in a pickup truck.

The rebels oppose any Western ground troops deploying in Libya, but they're pressing for a no-fly zone to relieve them of the threat from the air. The rebels can take on "the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi's air force," said Ali Suleiman, a rebel fighter at Ras Lanouf. "We don't want a foreign military intervention [on the ground], but we do want a no-fly zone. We are all waiting for one."

Arab Gulf countries joined the calls for a no-fly zone, with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates saying at a conference of his country's neighbors that the UN Security Council should "shoulder its historical responsibility for protecting the Libyan people."

In the battles over the weekend, Gadhafi's forces unleashed their strongest use of airpower yet in the nearly 3-week-old uprising. A powerful assault by warplanes, helicopter gunships and heavy barrages of artillery, rockets and tank fire drove the opposition forces out of the town of Bin Jawwad, 375 miles east of the capital.

The counteroffensive blunted what had been a steady advance by a force of 500 to 1,000 rebel fighters pushing down the coastal highway along the Mediterranean Sea west toward Tripoli. The rebels were forced back to Ras Lanouf, about 40 miles to the east.

The past three days of fighting killed 30 rebels and wounded 169, said Gebril Hewadi, a doctor at Al-Jalaa Hospital in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The rebels are now struggling to set up supply lines for weapons, ammunition and food, with many living off junk food, cookies and cans of tuna. They are waiting for rocket launchers, tanks and other heavy weapons to arrive with reinforcements from their headquarters in Benghazi.

The fighting also appears to have shut down oil operations at Ras Lanouf and the larger nearby oil port of Brega, which were already operating at minimal capacity.

Ahmed Jerksi, an oil official at Brega, said that port had stopped working the past few days because all the personnel had fled.

He and Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in Benghazi, said they believed Ras Lanouf had stopped as well, but it could not be directly confirmed on the ground.

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