Tripoli, Libya (CNN) — Libyan government troops will turn the strategic oil city of al-Brega into “hell” rather than let it fall into the hands of advancing rebel forces, a government spokesman said Monday.
Rebel forces moved to within 9 km (5.6 miles) of al-Brega over the weekend after dismantling thousands of land mines, a rebel spokesman said. But government spokesman Musa Ibrahim told CNN that forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi remained in full control of the eastern city late Monday.
“Defending Brega is so vital to the livelihood of the Libyan nation,” Ibrahim said. “We will turn Brega into hell. We will not give Brega up, even if this causes the death of thousands of rebels and the destruction of the whole city.”
Ibrahim said Gadhafi’s troops successfully fought off waves of rebel attacks over the last five days, with 30 government troops and 500 rebel fighters killed. The claim could not be independently verified.
Col. Ahmed Banni, a spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, said fighting broke out over the weekend after the rebels pulled out thousands of land mines and secured a path for movement toward the strategic oil town. Pro-Gadhafi troops dug a trench and filled it with oil only to set it alight as a line of defense near the eastern entrance of the city, he said.
“So this may delay our plan to take over the city, since they have linked the trench to an oil pipeline so they keep the fire going,” Banni added.
A rebel fighter who did not want to be named said a small rebel force entered the city and clashed with pro-Gadhafi forces, killing at least 11 and injuring dozens among rebel ranks. Gadhafi forces withdrew ahead of the rebels, but re-grouped and launched a counter-attack, Banni said.
“I can tell that the communication between the Gadhafi brigades is not too good, since they did not immediately fire at our expeditionary troops with Grad missiles. That’s what they usually do, but there was hesitation this time,” Banni said.
Officials with the Gadhafi government in Tripoli have denounced the assault on al-Brega. At the start of the latest round of fighting on Thursday, Ibrahim accused the NATO alliance of coordinating with rebels to mount a land, sea and air attack. He said the attack exceeded the mandate of United Nations Security Council resolutions that authorize the use of force in order to protect Libyan civilians.
In the meantime, NATO announced it struck more targets in the Libyan capital on Monday. For the first time, NATO forces attacked Tripoli’s main international airport.
Libyan officials brought journalists to see a radar tower that was bombed in a predawn attack. The remarkably precise strike damaged only the top of the radar tower, while also shattering windows in a neighboring office building.
A NATO military statement accused the Tripoli regime of using the radar device to track warplanes and warn pro-Gadhafi forces of impending airstrikes.
Officials at the airport scoffed at these claims.
“It is 100% civilian,” said acting airport director Naji Daw, pointing at the twisted metal at the top of the red-and-white tower. Daw said two people were lightly wounded by the attack. “They want us to go back to 100 years ago,” he said, adding that the airport will now have to rely on an outdated back-up system to track air traffic.
Not far away, Libyan commercial airliners sat motionless on the tarmac. Since NATO and US forces imposed a no-fly zone on Libya last March, this once bustling gateway to Tripoli has been barely operational. Daw said the airport now received occasional United Nations and Red Cross flights, as well as planes carrying foreign diplomatic delegations.