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Libyan Rebels Retreat from Oil Port Under Fire from Pro-Gadhafi Forces


A rebel fighter sits on a truck as he fires an anti-aircraft gun during an air strike at a rebel fighters checkpoint in Al Ugaila area along a road between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 12, 2011

A rebel fighter sits on a truck as he fires an anti-aircraft gun during an air strike at a rebel fighters checkpoint in Al Ugaila area along a road between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 12, 2011

Libyan rebels have retreated from an eastern oil port under heavy shelling from advancing government forces - another setback to an opposition movement trying to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Rebels fled the town of Brega Sunday, heading northeast along the coast toward the opposition-controlled town of Ajdabiya. Libyan state television declared that Brega has been "cleansed of armed gangs," but there was no immediate confirmation of that claim.

Gadhafi's forces have staged a rapid offensive into the opposition stronghold of eastern Libya in recent days, capturing two rebel-held towns to the west of Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad. Lightly armed and poorly organized opposition fighters have not been able to stop the advance of Gadhafi loyalists using aircraft, tanks and heavy weapons.

Some rebels say the setbacks have left them demoralized. Opposition protesters backed by deserting army units took control of most of eastern Libya and parts of the west last month, at the start of an uprising against Gadhafi's 42-year rule.

Pro-government forces also recaptured the western town of Zawiya, near the capital, Tripoli, last week, but the rebels remain in control of the western city of Misrata, Libya's third-largest.

Misrata residents reported hearing gun battles on the city's outskirts Sunday. It was not clear who was involved in the fighting. Gadhafi loyalists have staged several offensives to try to recapture the city in recent days.

Libyan rebels and the Arab League have urged the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent air attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces on the opposition.

France welcomed Arab League support for a French- and British-led initiative to draft a U.N. Security Council resolution that would establish a no-fly zone.

In a statement Sunday, the French foreign ministry said it will speed up efforts to build support for a resolution through contacts with the European Union, the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council and the rebels' Libyan National Transition Council. France is the first country to recognize the rebel council as Libya's legitimate ruler.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also welcomed the Arab League call for a no-fly zone, but said "many questions" remain about how to implement it without violating the League's other demand for no foreign troop intervention in Libya.

The United States is participating in planning for a no-fly zone, but has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of such a measure, and wants a clear legal mandate before taking action. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to hold talks with representatives of the Libyan opposition council in Paris on Monday.

In another development, Gadhafi's government appealed to foreign oil companies to resume exports from Libyan oil terminals Sunday, after many foreign workers left the country to escape the unrest. Libyan state television said the oil terminals are secure, and it urged their employees to return to work.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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