Rebels fight to stall Gaddafi's army in east

Wed Mar 16, 2011 9:01pm EDT

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By Khaled al Ramahi

NEAR AJDABIYAH, Libya, March 17 (Reuters) - Libyan rebels have fought back against Muammar Gaddafi's troops around the eastern town of Ajdabiyah, hampering their push towards the insurgent capital Benghazi.

Government forces captured Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte, on Tuesday after most of its rebel defenders retreated from a heavy artillery barrage.

One rebel officer said on Wednesday the town had been lost and the fighters who remained had handed over their weapons. But some apparently refused to surrender or flee.

By Wednesday evening, residents said the rebels held the centre of town while forces loyal to Gaddafi were mostly on its eastern outskirts.

Jibril al-Huweidi, a doctor at Benghazi's al-Jalaa Hospital, said he heard from ambulance drivers coming in from Ajdabiyah that they could shuttle back and forth without much problem.

"Only the eastern part of Ajdabiyahis controlled by Gaddafi's men," he said.

"There are a couple of tanks there that sporadically fire at the city. But Ajdabiyah's city centre and other access points are peaceful and not one man from Gaddafi's force wanders around."

Another Benghazi resident, Faiza Ali, said she spoke to relatives in Ajdabiyah on Wednesday evening. "They said they are fine."

Rebels had ambushed Gaddafi forces outside the city and were still battling them, she said.

Earlier on Wednesday, weary government soldiers returning from the frontlines told journalists that they were meeting renewed resistance from rebel positions near the city.

REBELS HOLD OUT

A rebel spokesman in Benghazi, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters by telephone that they were holding Ajdabiyah.

"But the fighting is fierce. His supply lines are stretched so he can't push on from Ajdabiyah. We've got some surprises in store. We're going to fight on and we're going to win."

Refugees from Ajdabiyah described the fighting to a Reuters reporter when they reached the town of Salum on the Egyptian border.

"I left Ajdabiyah last night after I saw jets bombing the city. I was terrified," Issam Abdul Sattar, 34, said.

The fighting around Ajdabiyah will slow the advance of Gaddafi's forces if they want to secure their rearguard and supply lines.

Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam earlier had boasted that his troops were about to deal a mortal blow to Benghazi, the seat of a provisional rebel national council opposed to his father's 41-year-rule.

He also scoffed at the protracted discussions among world powers on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

"The military operations are finished. In 48 hours everything will be over. Our forces are close to Benghazi. Whatever decision is taken, it will be too late," Saif told Euronews TV channel.

In Benghazi, the mood was a mixture of defiance and nervousness, with some citizens predicting a bloodbath and others confident the rebels would still snatch victory.

FOREIGN DOCTORS PULL OUT

Aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said the violence had forced it to withdraw its staff from Benghazi.

"Security conditions have made it effectively impossible for medical teams to travel safely to areas where the fighting has created the greatest need," it said.

The rebel army, made up largely of young volunteers with little training and defectors from the government military, has been hammered by the artillery, tanks and warplanes of Gaddafi's troops and looks now to be relying on guerrilla hit-and-run tactics to stay in the fight.

The capture of Ajdabiyah, an important road junction, would give Gaddafi forces several options in a region where a British army led by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery fought major battles against German General Erwin Rommel in World War Two.

As well as heading north up the coastal highway to Benghazi, loyalist forces could strike east through the desert to Tobruk, 400 km (250 km) away, to isolate the rebel capital.

On the road between Tobruk and Salum, rebels manned several checkpoints. The border was still under their control.

(Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer and Mohammed Abbas in Tobruk, Alex Dziadosz on the Egypt border, Souhail Karam in Rabat and Daniel Flynn in Paris; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Cairo and Tom Heneghan in Algiers; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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