TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli on Sunday, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold. Earlier, the city woke to the crackle of heavy machine-gun fire that rattled the capital before dawn.
Libyan authorities said the unusually heavy gunfire that began around 5:30 a.m. was celebratory, claiming that government forces had retaken the oil port of Ras Lanouf, in central Libya, and the western city of Misrata. But residents in both cities said the opposition remained in control.
Some 2,000 people were in the streets Sunday and hundreds drove past the Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Gadhafi lives, waving flags and cheering. Armed men in plainclothes were standing at the gates, also shooting in the air. It was not known if Gadhafi was in Tripoli.
The early morning gunfire erupted in Tripoli as the conflict in Libya deepened, signaling an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.
The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Gadhafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed.
Gadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.
On Saturday, both sides saw gains as they battled for control of the country.
Government forces in tanks rolled into Zawiya, the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured the key oil port of Ras Lanouf and pushed toward Gadhafi's hometown.
With the Gadhafi regime's tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital "will be killed for sure," one rebel said after nightfall.
Rebels in the east advanced from their eastern stronghold toward Sirte, setting the stage for fierce fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces who hold sway in the tribal area.
The storming of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.
"The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big," the rebel in Zawiya said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. The rebels vowed to keep up the fight in the city.
Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. Several fires sent heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers shot at anybody on the streets, including residents on balconies.
The rebels initially retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some ground, according to three residents and activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs' Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city's fringes, sealing off the city's entry and exit routes, the witnesses said. Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Gadhafi's sons who commands it, have been massed outside the city for days.
The pro-Gadhafi forces then blasted Zawiya with artillery and mortar fire in late afternoon before the tanks and troops on foot came in, firing at buildings and people, witnesses said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said "99 percent" of Zawiya is under government control.
The rebels fared better in the east, capturing the key oil port of Ras Lanouf on Friday night in their first military victory in a potentially long and arduous westward march from the east of the country to Gadhafi's eastern stronghold of Tripoli.
Witnesses said Ras Lanouf, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) east of Sirte, fell to rebel hands on Friday night after a fierce battle with pro-regime forces who later fled.
"Go to Tripoli!" one of the fighters yelled in English.
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