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Libya: BBC team beaten as fighting intensifies


Libyan rebel fighters launch a rocket towards a position held by forces loyal to Gaddafi during clashes outside the town of Ras Lanuf on March 9, 2011.


Roberto Schmidt

Libyan forces captured, detained and brutally beat a BBC news team while they were trying to reach the western city of Zawiya, the BBC states.

The three-member team say Libya's army and secret police beat them with fists, knees and rifles and then performed mock executions.

"We were lined up against the wall. I was the last in line - facing the wall," Chris Cobb-Smith told the BBC. "I looked and I saw a plain-clothes guy with a small sub-machine gun. He put it to everyone's neck. I saw him and he screamed at me. Then he walked up to me, put the gun to my neck and pulled the trigger twice. The bullets whisked past my ear. The soldiers just laughed."

The news team said they witnessed other detainees who were hooded, handcuffed and often screaming in agony.

The team, which was detained Monday and then held for 21 hours, has since flown out of the country.

The attack on the journalists, which included being held in a cage while others were beaten around them, represents the most serious case yet involving the targeting of international media, the Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and opposition forces engaged in some of the fiercest fighting yet on Wednesday, as both sides battle for control of the north African nation.

Gaddafi forces attacked rebels at the strategic oil town of Ras Lanuf, ending their attempts to advance further west.

An Al Jazeera correspondent said Gaddafi's airforce targeted junctions at the entrance to the town and attacked an oil facility there in three places.

"There are huge plumes of smoke leaping into the air. We can see mortar fire from Gaddafi troops and the rebels are firing rockets towards the west," according to Al Jazeera (see video below).

Other reports state that the heart of the oil refinery was not attacked directly.

Gaddafi's forces on Wednesday continued a sustained assault on Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, surrounding it with tanks and targeting the main square with snipers, Reuters reported.

It quoted a rebel fighter named Ibrahim saying Gaddafi's forces were in control of the main road and suburbs, while rebels held on to the central square.

"There are many dead people and they can't even bury them," he said. "Zawiya is deserted. There's nobody on the streets. No animals, not even birds in the sky," he said.

The government and rebels both claimed to be in control of Zawiya on Wednesday, the New York Times reports.

"Across the country from each other, in fights of vastly different complexions, Ras Lanuf and Zawiya have become proving grounds in Libya’s emerging civil war. In the east, on a battlefield of desert, dunes and scrub, the rebel force has matured and, improbably, retained control of the town for more than week. But under steady bombardment by government jets and kept at bay by superior artillery, the rebels have not been able to advance toward Tripoli," it states.

"In Zawiya, the rebels have held out against a withering assault by Colonel Gaddafi's forces, including snipers and tanks in close-quarters urban combat. As scores of civilians have been killed, the government has responded with more attacks and apparent falsehoods about its progress and the conduct of its troops."

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has warned any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over his country will be met with armed resistance and be taken as proof that Western powers are trying to steal Libya's oil.

His defiant remarks in a Turkish television interview and a speech broadcast by Libyan state television came as NATO countries weighed the possibility of imposing the measure to halt air strikes on anti-government rebels.

“If they take such a decision [to impose a no-fly zone], it will be useful for Libya, because the Libyan people will see the truth, that what they want is to take control of Libya and to steal their oil,” Gaddafi said in the Turkish TV interview reported by the BBC.

"They want to take your petrol," he said. "This is what America, this what the French, those colonialists, want." He added: "The Libyan people will take up arms against them."

Libya appears to have sent envoys to meet and negotiate with western governments who have called for sanctions and actions against the regime, Reuters reports.

"Libyan government emissaries appeared to have flown to Brussels to talk to European Union and NATO officials meeting on Thursday and Friday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, suggesting the situation was very fluid," it states. "Portugal said a Gaddafi envoy met its foreign minister on Wednesday to explain Tripoli's view of the conflict and Greece said another will meet Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Dollis, in Cairo on Thursday morning. There were no details of the kind of message the emissaries were bringing."

Britain and France have urged Washington to back their calls to shut down airspace over Libya in response to Gaddafi's use of force against civilians. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said any decision should be made by the United Nations and not led by the United States.

The attacks on Ras Lanuf come amid increasing deadlock between the rebels and Gaddafi's men as the country's four-week-old uprising develops into what some are now calling an all-out civil war.

According to GlobalPost correspondent Nichole Sobecki, reporting from near the frontline, enthusiasm among the rebels is waning as their earlier triumphs are eclipsed by fierce attacks from government troops backed by warplanes.

Al Jazeera has this gripping video:

-- Barry Neild, Hanna Ingber Win