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Gaddafi’s troops march on ‘Free Libya’

Street fighting, air strikes in a heavily populated city and a siege with terrified families held hostage: these were the violent and chaotic scenes yesterday as Colonel Gaddafi's regime began its offensive to claw back the land lost to Libya's revolution.

The target of the attack was Brega, a city lying on the coastal plain that marks a key strategic coastal route to Benghazi. The attack and reports of advances by the regime's forces spread panic in Benghazi, the capital of ‘Free Libya’, where members of a newly formed administration asked for immediate international help.

As his forces were advancing, Colonel Gaddafi delivered a furious speech in the capital, Tripoli, lashing out at the US, UK and other states pressing him to step down, branding protesters “terrorists of al-Qaida” and vowing retribution. “We shall,” he declared, “fight to the last man and woman.”

“We will enter a bloody war and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States enters or Nato enters,” he told supporters in a two-and-a-half-hour televised speech in Tripoli.

“We are ready to hand out weapons to a million, or |two million or three million, and another Vietnam will begin. It doesn't matter to us. We no longer care about anything.”

But on the ground his bravado was not matched by events. After a day of fierce clashes, the Gaddafi loyalists had been driven into Brega's university complex surrounded by rebel fighters, where they held more than 100 people, including children, the elderly and women, families of teaching staff |and workers, as “human shields”.

Gaddafi has promised “another Vietnam” if foreign powers answer a plea by Libyan dissidents for military intervention.

The rebels have called on the UN to strike the strongholds of foreign mercenaries, the mainly African fighters flown in to bolster Colonel Gaddafi's army, as pro-regime forces launched a dawn offensive to take back parts of the country's east.

The urgent appeal came as US President Barack Obama authorised the first official contact with the opposition leadership in Libya, according to diplomatic sources.

Meanwhile, Britain yesterday launched an emergency airlift to help rescue thousands |of refugees left stranded by |the fighting in Libya amid fears |of a looming humanitarian |crisis.

The Government said it was sending three commercially-chartered airliners to pick up refugees packed into vast camps across the border in Tunisia without food or shelter.

The move follows an appeal by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a mass international evacuation operation. France and Spain also announced that they were sending planes to help with the airlift.

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