Residents of the Libyan oil town of Ras Lanuf were seen leaving Monday, fearing an attack by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi a day after deadly assaults on other rebel-held cities.
Foreign journalists reported seeing families driving out of Ras Lanuf Monday and said there were very few rebels at checkpoints in the area. Journalists evacuated the town’s main hotel in the early morning hours, after staff began warning guests about their safety.
News agencies said people also were reportedly clearing out of the coastal city of Bin Jawwad, to the west of Ras Lanuf.
The reports quoted rebels as saying they were regrouping following Sunday’s attacks by Gadhafi loyalists who employed tanks, jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery to halt the rebels’ advance toward the capital.
Rebel forces retreated to Ras Lanuf Sunday from Bin Jawwad, after being ambushed there by pro-Gadhafi forces. Rebels had captured Bin Jawwad on Saturday, but then retreated, enabling pro-Gadhafi forces to occupy houses and mount Sunday’s surprise attack.
Retreating fighters said their forces advancing on Sirte – Mr. Gadhafi’s hometown – sustained significant casualties in the clashes. But rebel forces were said to have beaten back pro-Gadhafi forces in the towns of Zawiyah and Misrata.
The rebels say they will continue fighting until they get to Sirte and, eventually, Tripoli.
In Washington, three prominent U.S. senators called for the United States and its allies to consider enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent government aircraft from attacking civilians and anti-Gadhafi fighters.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, challenged U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ assertion that establishing a no-fly zone would require attacking Libya’s air defense systems. Senator Kerry suggested that allied forces could “crater the airports and runways” in Libya, leaving them inoperable “for a period of time.”
Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain also expressed support for a no-fly zone. Bill Richardson, ex-governor of New Mexico and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday the time had come to “covertly arm the rebels” and enforce a no-fly zone.
As of Sunday evening, the Libyan government retained full control of the capital, home to two million of the country’s approximately six million people, and Sirte, while most of the remaining key coastal cities were in rebel hands.
Protests against Mr. Gadhafi erupted in mid-February, with demonstrators calling for an end to his 42-year rule. The Libyan leader has refused demands to step down, at one point saying he expects to die a “martyr” in Libya.