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 200-300 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.”