As battle rages, Libyan oil goes up in flames
A pillar of orange flame and black smoke erupts from a blazing oil plant as the source of Libya's wealth is caught in the crossfire of the rebellion against Moamer Gaddafi.
Heavy clashes leave the facility in the small coastal town of As-Sidra in ruins and prompt joyous shouts from the opposition, who accuse Gaddafi of stealing the profits from the country's reserves.
"He has taken all our oil, all the money, and we have nothing. Now, God willing, we will beat him," Ali al-Aguri, an oil company maintenence worker, tells AFP at the scene of the fighting as he looks at the billowing cloud.
As Gaddafi accused the West of trying to steal Libya's oil, his forces are pushing hard to clear the rebels from the normally placid stretch of Mediterranean coast that houses some of the biggest oil ports and installations in Africa's fourth-largest oil-producing nation.
But until Wednesday, they had been spared the violence from the opposition's rapid advance towards Tripoli in the early days of the three-week-old revolt and from the regime's current counter-offensive.
The largely outgunned rebels unveiled the newest addition to their forces near the frontline close to As-Sidra and around five kilometres (three miles) west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf -- multiple rocket launchers.
Mounted on the back of pick-up trucks and carrying up to 30 Katyusha rockets each, they initially look like a game-changer.
In reply to an initial onslaught of shells fired by Gaddafi's forces at a group of around 200 rebels on the road that cuts through the desert, the rebels unleash rocket after rocket, each leaving a trail of fire in the sky.
One of at least 50 rebel rockets counted by AFP hits a mobile phone communications tower, sending out a shower of debris. Rebel fighters also fire several SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles from shoulder-held launchers.
The rebels give huge cheers of "Allahu Akhbar" as each one streaks away. Over a loudspeaker plays a revolutionary song with lyrics which said: "We will stay here until the pain is over."
"Now we have these weapons we will have victory," says Khalid al-Matbiri, a 20-year-old fighter with a missile launcher on his shoulder.
Soon there are three three giant black plumes rising from the desert in the distance.
It is impossible to see the source of the first two are as they lie on the horizon, but from a hilltop overlooking the site repeated explosions can be seen ripping through an oil installation.
"They have fired Katushya rockets, we have fired Katushya rockets," says one rebel when asked which side had hit it.
Many begin racing towards the beaches near the oil facility in pick-up trucks spraypainted with slogans including "Death Brigade" and "Victory or death".
Later, rebel spokesman Abdelhafez Ghoqa says the regime has bombed the oil sites. "The oil wells have been bombarded, as well as oil installations," he tells reporters in Benghazi.
But the two-hour exchange ends badly for the rebels.
In response, Gaddafi's forces fire dozens more shells which rain down all around the poorly organised fighters. The closest hit metres away, each resounding blast sending rebels ducking for cover in the sand dunes.
A few splash harmlessly into the calm blue of the Mediterranean.
Then comes the dreaded sound of Gaddafi's jet fighters, unleashing a series of air strikes in an apparent attempt to stop the rebels outflanking them along the beach.
In panic, the pick-up trucks turn around and hurtle towards Ras Lanuf, stopping briefly for fighters to clamber aboard.
Chaos reigns back at Ras Lanuf as a string of ambulances bring casualties back from the front line and the rebels try to regroup.
Shells fall on the outskirts of the town for the first time, though, signalling that Gaddafi's forces are still advancing.
Above it all, the vast spreading plume of smoke obscures the late afternoon sun.