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New this morning: Rebels fight Gadhafi forces over Libyan oil port

Photo by Karie Bradley

Photo by Karie Bradley

AP- The fighting at the Brega oil port appeared to be the first significant attempt by Gadhafi's regime to push back against the large swath of territory, almost the entire eastern half of the country, seized by the opposition. For the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have been focusing on securing his stronghold in the capital Tripoli and trying with mixed success to take back nearby rebel-held cities in the west.

In the capital, Gadhafi repeated claims that al-Qaida is behind the uprising, telling a gathering of supporters that a "sleeper cell" launched the protests.

Opposition members said they believe Gadhafi was pulling up reinforcements from bases deep in the deserts of southwestern Libya, flying them to the fronts on the coast.

Soon after sunrise Wednesday, a large force of Gadhafi loyalists in around 50 SUVS, some mounted with machine guns, descended on Brega, catching the small opposition contingent guarding the site by surprise, said Ahmed Dawas, an anti-Gadhafi fighter at a checkpoint outside the port.

The opposition fighters fled, and regime warplanes hit an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the nearby rebel-held city of Ajdabiya, witnesses said. The forces seized the port, airstrip and the oil facilities where about 4,000 personnel work.

But by mid-morning, the opposition counter-attacked. Anti-Gadhafi fighters with automatic weapons were seen speeding out of Ajdabiya in pick-up trucks, heading for Brega, 40 miles away (70 kilometers) away. Dawas said they retook the oil facilities and airstrip. Other witnesses reported regime forces were surrounded by rebels. The sound of screaming warplanes and the crackle of heavy gunfire could be heard as the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press by phone