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Rebels reinforce key Libyan oil port in east
BREGA, Libya -- Rebels reinforced a key oil port Thursday while facing new regime airstrikes in eastern Libya, and thousands of angry mourners buried victims of a counteroffensive by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, shooting guns in the air, shouting "Down with Gadhafi!" and swearing to take vengeance.
Although there have been stirrings of a diplomatic effort to ease the crisis, an opposition spokesman flatly ruled out any negotiations with Gadhafi, saying "his hands are tainted with blood."
President Barack Obama insisted that Gadhafi leave office, declaring he had "lost the legitimacy to lead."
He pledged to hold Gadhafi and his loyalists accountable, saying the U.S. and the entire world were outraged by violence against the rebels, and he lauded U.N. sanctions meant to put international pressure on the longtime ruler.
Signaling he was digging in, Gadhafi's regime apparently has stepped up its recruitment of mercenaries from other African countries, with an official in neighboring Mali saying that 200 to 300 men have left for Libya in the last week.
The International Criminal Court in the Netherlands said it will investigate Gadhafi, his sons and his inner circle for possible crimes against humanity in the violent crackdown of the 17-day-old uprising that sought to topple the man who has ruled Libya for four decades.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's top prosecutor, said Gadhafi and several commanders and regime officials had formal or de facto control over forces that attacked protesters, and he promised "no impunity in Libya."
Army units that have joined the rebels fanned out in the oil facilities and port at Brega, armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and dressed in camouflage army uniforms with checkered keffiyehs. They were backed by at least a dozen pickup trucks with mounted machine guns or towing rocket launchers.
Government warplanes launched a new airstrike on the town Thursday morning, according to witnesses. It was not clear what they targeted, but it was likely an airstrip of the huge oil complex on the Mediterranean coast.
No casualties were reported, and pro-Gadhafi forces withdrew 80 miles to the west to another oil port, Ras Lanouf, after their defeat Wednesday by citizen militias from nearby towns and cities.
Despite having little central organization or command, the anti-Gadhafi fighters were able to repel a force of several hundred regime troops that attacked after dawn.
"We are in a position to control the area and we are deploying our forces," a rebel officer in Brega told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
At least 14 rebel fighters were killed in Wednesday's battle, including Abdul-Salaam Senoussi, whose father, Mohammed, came to Brega to claim his body.
"You know, this is my son," the grieving father said softly after identifying the body. He made a gesture like a pistol and said: "They shot him by plane."
Gadhafi has come under international criticism for firing at his people from warplanes, although his regime denies it.
Also among the dead was 7-year-old Hassan Umran, who was killed when he was caught in the crossfire. His body was at the same Brega morgue as Senoussi's son.
In the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Brega, thousands of mourners chanted "Down with Gadhafi" and fired weapons into the air as they buried three of the dead.
"Our message to Gadhafi is we are coming and we will make Libya free," said one man in the crowd, Sami Mosur. "We will kill him, like he has killed our people here."
Gadhafi has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab nation to the recent wave of anti-government protests. Hundreds are known to have been killed, and some estimates top 1,000.
The fighting at Brega halted for now the regime's first counteroffensive on the opposition-held eastern half of the country. It also underlined the deadlock that Libya appears to have fallen into.
Farj Lashrash, a soldier with the opposition, said the rebels had captured 10 pro-Gadhafi soldiers since Wednesday night.
The western gate of the nearby rebel-held town of Ajdabiya, which buried five dead, was reinforced with heavy weaponry -- including a tank, four anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks and four rocket launchers.
Gadhafi's forces seem unable to bring significant strength to dislodge rebels from the territory they hold. But the opposition does not have the capability to go on the offense against Gadhafi's strongholds in the west, including the capital, Tripoli. Its leaders have pleaded for foreign powers to launch airstrikes to help them oust Gadhafi as the United States moves military forces closer to Libyan shores.
The Pentagon on Wednesday tried to play down the idea of using military force in Libya, including a "no-fly zone" that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said would first require attacking Libya's air defenses.
Gadhafi warned the U.S. and other Western powers not to intervene, saying thousands in his country would die and "we will turn Libya into another Vietnam."
A large group of ethnic Tuareg have left from the city of Kidal in northern Mali for Libya in the last week, according to a senior elected official in Mali who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared government retribution.
Kidal, the base of a rebellion by the Tuareg over the years, is about a two days' drive across the desert to southern Libya. The official, who added that even some of his relatives had gone, said the men were lured by money.
Another man in Mali who is in touch with people en route to Libya said about 40 cars of prospective fighters have crossed into Algeria. They are hesitating about crossing into Libya, fearing that anti-Gadhafi forces were guarding the frontier, the man said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Mali is one of the world's poorest countries, where nearly two-thirds of the population earns less than $1 a day.
Oil prices -- which have risen to their levels in more than two years -- eased below $102 a barrel Thursday on profit-taking and hopes that the conflict in Libya -- a member of OPEC -- might be resolved by international mediation. Gadhafi ally President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela proposed that his country and a bloc of "friendly" nations mediate, but so far Gadhafi has not responded, and opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani ruled out talks.
"We do not accept any negotiations with Col. Gadhafi," Gheriani said. "His hands are tainted with blood and we will not talk to him."
Added Gheriani: "He knows his way to the airport and he can leave."
The attacks on Brega have bolstered the rebels, he said. "We have strong hearts and a cause, and they have nothing," Gheriani added.
Exports from the country with Africa's largest proven oil reserves have all but stopped. Crude production in the southeastern oil fields that feed the facility at Brega has been scaled back because storage facilities there are filling up. Overall, Libyan crude production has dropped from 1.6 million barrels per day, nearly 2 percent of world consumption, to as little as 600,000 barrels per day.
"In the last 24 hours, we had a bit of a panic here," oil company employee Osman Rajab told the AP. "Now they (the rebel army) are trying to control the industrial areas," he said, referring to the oil complex.
At the edge of Brega's massive oil facility, the country's second largest, the rebel army set up a line of defense, with soldiers, four pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and one truck towing a rocket launcher.
For the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing Tripoli and trying to take back nearby cities held by rebels using weapons looted from storehouses and backed by allied army units.
Pro-Gadhafi forces succeeded over the weekend in retaking two small towns. But the major western rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Misrata, near Tripoli, have repelled repeated attacks -- including new forays against Zawiya on Wednesday.
Zawiya was quiet Thursday, and residents have set up defenses at the city entrances, said resident Alaa al-Zawi, an opposition activist. He said the city has six months' worth of food and water, though it lacks medicine if fighting resumes.
The turmoil in Libya has set off a massive exodus of 180,000 people -- mostly foreign workers in Libya -- who have fled to the borders, U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the AP.
At least 5,500 foreign workers were being evacuated from the port of Benghazi. Europe, the United States and the United Nations donated more than $30 million to help the chaotic exodus from the North African nation.
Forces loyal to Gadhafi captured three Dutch marines and their helicopter during a botched evacuation mission Sunday near Sirte, a stronghold of the Libyan leader, the Netherlands' Defense Ministry said.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Tripoli, Libya; Bassem Mroue in Cairo; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; and Martin Vogl in Mali contributed to this story.