By C. J. Chivers from Missrata in Libya
This article was published in The New York Times on 07/05/201
Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi struck the fuel terminal of this rebel-controlled city early Saturday with ground-to-ground rockets, igniting a fire that threatened the city’s fuel supply.
The barrage struck shortly after midnight, when rockets began landing and exploding in several areas of the terminal, officials there said.At least one rocket hit a set of three mammoth tanks, which ruptured and burst into a fireball. The fire settled into a leaping blaze that towered overheard, visible for miles. Its glow illuminated the eastern section of the city throughout the night. Residents woke to a thick, drifting cloud of black smoke.
The attack on the terminal was another escalation against the besieged city, and the second pinpoint attack by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in two nights.
Residents woke Friday to the news that Misurata’s port, its only lifeline to the outside world, had been peppered with antitank land mines.
At the fuel terminal, a small contingent of firefighters worked throughout the night and the day trying to contain the fire, which had destroyed all three storage tanks in one section of the terminal, but had not spread.
“We want to protect the other tanks from exploding,” said Mufta Youssef, one of the firefighters, after backing away from the containers’ blackened remains for a break from the heat.
No one was wounded in the attack or the firefighting effort, officials said.
The tanks contained diesel fuel and gasoline — each roughly 6,000 cubic meters, or 1.5 million gallons — said Muftah Bazina, the terminal’s director.
The effect on the city’s energy supply was not immediately apparent. Misurata has been cut off from new sources of fuel since the uprising against the Qaddafi government began in February. But it began the siege with large reservoirs of diesel fuel and gasoline, and so far there have not been shortages.
Several other fuel tanks remained intact, and terminal officials said the rebels’ de facto government would not disclose which tanks were full and which were not, nor would they make any public statements about how much fuel remained in the city.
“The exact information is a secret,” Mr. Bazina said.
He was willing to characterize the situation only in general terms. “We do have fuel,” he said. “But we do not have enough.”
For weeks, the lines at the few gas stations in the city have often stretched to hundreds of cars. But residents and officials have said the lines are caused in part by the small number of stations, which are often closed — not to any shortage of gasoline. Gas prices have remained low, indicating sufficient supply.
Supplies of pressurized cooking fuel, however, recently ran out.
The Qaddafi government has tried striking the terminal with rocket barrages at least three times in the past three weeks, officials said, and in previous attacks had destroyed an administrative building and a warehouse. The attack early Saturday was the first time a fuel storage tank had been hit.
Mr. Bazina and other officials at the port said at least one of the tanks was struck by at least one rocket, and the resulting explosion and heat ignited the others.
The impact craters and twisted remains of other ground-to-ground rockets were visible around the remaining tanks.
The tail section of one variant of a Grad rocket — a cold war-era munitions made in the 1980s in what is now Slovakia, and one of the most common fired on this city — was visibly stuck in the soil near the fire.
Workers at the terminal had also collected two others of the same variant of rocket, including one that had sailed just over another tank and struck the ground beside it without exploding.