Friday, March 4, 2011

Massive blast in Benghazi rips arms depot key to Libya rebels

Blast at Libyan weapons depot
Flames are seen after an explosion at an ammunition storage facility at a military base in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. | AP Photo/Hussein Malla
BENGHAZI, Libya — A massive explosion ripped through a major weapons depot for Libyan rebels outside this rebel-held city Friday, killing dozens and possibly dealing a major blow to the ongoing battle to topple Moammar Gadhafi.

The explosion leveled nearby buildings and overturned cars in the town of Rajma and could be felt through this city. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the air.

Medical officials said the death toll was unknown, but would be high. Other reports said at 60 had been killed, including 17 firefighters who reportedly died trying to extinguish the flames.

"We've got pieces, arms and legs, so we don't know how many people were killed," said an official at the Harwadiya Medical Center, one of the facilities where casualties were rushed for treatment.

"There must be a lot of dead not discovered yet in the nearby houses because the explosion was so big. You should look for bodies outside the base," said Bashir Ahmed Madani, 26, who was guarding the military camp entrance that led to the weapons depot and spoke from his hospital bed, where he lay covered with a bloodied pre-Gadhafi Libyan flag.

It was unknown what caused the explosion. Pro-Gadhafi war planes had tried to bomb the depot twice in recent days, without success, and there were no reports of air attacks when the explosion occurred at about 7 p.m. local time.

Whatever its cause, the timing of the blast couldn't have been more inopportune for the rebels.
For the first time since they took control of much of eastern Libya, the rebels on Friday had gone on the offensive, seizing the key oil town of Ras Lanouf on Libya's coastal highway, and moving their frontline 70 miles to the west in what appeared to be the first step in a long-promised march to Tripoli, where Gadhafi forces are in firm control.
Whether the rebels would be able to continue their westward movement without the depot was unclear. On Wednesday, the depot had been a primary source of arms for the ragtag rebel army that rushed from Benghazi to the port city of Brega to rebuff an assault by Gadhafi loyalists.

In the west, Gadhafi forces continued their siege of rebels in Zawiya and Misrata as the battle for control of Libya became a two-front war.

In Zawiya, Gadhafi forces blocked injured rebels from entering a hospital. In Misrata, residents finally gained enough ground to recover the body of a fighter killed four days ago. Fighters in both towns said they're running out of ammunition for their Kalashnikov assault rifles and other small weapons as they faced pro-Gadhafi forces equipped with tanks and artillery.
Rebels appeared hopeful they would prevail, especially a if the West imposed a no-fly zone, keeping Gadhafi from using his air force.

"We are waiting for a no-fly zone," said a rebel fighter. In the meantime, "we are fixing a lot of wapons and machine guns, but it is going to take time. We can defeat him, but it is going to take time."

In Benghazi, there were also hope that a no-fly zone would be imposed. Tellingly, a large "No Foreign Intervention" sign that hung over the courthouse in the early days of liberation had been taken down.

Essam Gherani, a volunteer and spokesman for the newly formed provincial council responsible for the east, said he now would welcome precision strikes at Gadhafi and his forces.

"If these bastions were hit, this would be done in 24 hours," Gherani said. "The will (of the rebel forces) is there, but the means is something else."

(Hannah Allam in Cairo and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)

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