Rebels push west as air strikes hit Gaddafi forces

BIN JAWAD, Libya Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:19pm EDT

1 of 26. A rebel fighter walks amid debris at Brega, after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fled westward following coalition air strikes in eastern Libya, March 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) - Libya's ramshackle rebel army pushed west on Sunday to retake a series of towns from the forces of Muammar Gaddafi as they pulled back under pressure from Western air strikes.

Emboldened by the capture of the strategic town of Ajdabiyah with the help of foreign warplanes on Saturday, the rebels have within two days dramatically reversed military losses in their five-week insurgency and regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.

Rebels said they now had their sights on the coastal town of Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and an important military base about 150 km further along the coastal road.

A Reuters reporter in Sirte heard four blasts on Sunday night. It was unclear if they were in the town or its outskirts.

The reporter also saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns leaving Sirte and moving westwards toward Tripoli, along with dozens of civilian cars carrying families and stuffed with personal belongings.

"We want to go to Sirte today. I don't know if it will happen," said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with a hundred others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

The advance along Libya's Mediterranean coast by a poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels indicated that Western strikes under a U.N. no-fly zone were shifting the battlefield dynamics dramatically, in the east at least.

The rebels are now back in control of the main oil terminals in the east -- Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk -- while Gaddafi appears to be retrenching in the west.

FIGHTING IN MISRATA

Nearer the capital, Gaddafi's forces fought rebels in the center of Misrata, Libya's third city, to try to consolidate his grip on western Libya. Misrata is the only western city still in rebel hands and has been sealed off for weeks.

A resident called Saadoun told Reuters by phone that at least eight people were killed and 24 wounded as Gaddafi's forces fired mortars while attacking Misrata from the west in a day of fighting.

Pro-Gaddafi snipers were also pinning down rebel forces but late on Sunday night the fighting died down.

A rebel called Mohammed told Reuters by phone that pro-Gaddafi forces controlled "only one small area, a couple of streets" in the western part of the city.

Residents told Reuters they were having to use wells to get water and that medicines were in short supply.

At least six blasts resonated in Tripoli on Sunday night, followed by long bursts of anti-aircraft fire by Libyan forces. Libyan television said there had been air strikes on the "civilian and military areas" in the capital.

On the diplomatic front, NATO agreed on Sunday to take full command of military operations in Libya after a week of heated negotiations, a diplomat and a NATO official said, as the United States seeks to scale back its military role in another Muslim country following operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Western air strikes had "eliminated" Gaddafi's ability to move his heavy weapons.

CONFERENCE

Gates also raised the possibility that Gaddafi's regime could splinter and said an international conference in London on Tuesday would discuss political strategies to help bring an end to Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

Any rebel advance on Sirte or especially Tripoli would raise questions about the justification for air strikes, conducted under a U.N. mandate to protect Libya's civilians, and any suggestion of a move to carry out the explicit wish of the United States, France, Britain and others that Gaddafi leave power.

Fighting in Tripoli could cause large numbers of casualties, including an increased risk of civilian casualties, said Daniel Keohane of the European Institute for Security Studies.

"If rebel forces were seen to be seeking revenge on Gaddafi supporters, it could cause huge political problems for the alliance," he said, "because the U.N. mandate to protect civilians should apply across the board."

While rebels have advanced almost unopposed to Bin Jawad, any fight over Sirte is likely to be tough because the town is psychologically and strategically important to Gaddafi.

Besides being his home town and that of many members of its Gaddadfa tribe, it houses well-armed and tightly knit army brigades. The civilian airport to the south of the town is also home to what appears to be a large military air base.

HASTY RETREAT

Further west, Gaddafi's forces appeared to have beaten a hasty retreat from the oil towns.

In Ras Lanuf, battle debris was scattered around the eastern gate, which had been hit by an air strike.

At least three military trucks were smoldering, and ammunition, plastic bags of rations and a tin bowl with a half-eaten meal lay scattered on the ground.

On the way into Ras Lanuf, a Reuters correspondent saw a bus loaded with government soldiers who had been taken prisoner, escorted by a pickup with a machine gun mounted on the back.

As foreign media passed, rebels chanted: "Sarkozy, Sarkozy, Sarkozy," a reference to the French president's early advocacy of a no-fly zone over Libya.

Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that Gaddafi was personally "leading the battle" but appeared to suggest the leader might be moving around to keep his whereabouts a mystery.

"He has many offices, many places around Libya. I assure you he is leading the nation at this very moment and he is in continuous communication with everyone around the country."

Libyan state television was on Sunday broadcasting pop songs and images of palm trees, wheatfields and vast construction projects completed in Gaddafi's four decades in power.

Gaddafi himself has not been shown on television since he made a speech on Wednesday. His sons Khamis and Saif al-Islam -- who earlier in the conflict spoke regularly to foreign media -- have been out of sight even longer.

Internet social networks and some Arabic-language media reported that Khamis, commander of the elite 32nd brigade, had been killed by a disaffected air force pilot who, according to the reports, flew his plane into Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli.

There has been no confirmation and Libyan officials say such reports are part of a deliberate campaign of misinformation.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Edmund Blair, Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Tom Pfeiffer, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam Karouny, Joseph Nasr, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, David Brunnstrom and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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Comments (7)
Johnnyk wrote:
All the experts said air power would not win the war. They are wrong. Air power has decimated the Gadaffi forces. Now a rag tag rebel army is taking over the towns and cities. This would not occur if the Libyan people were not with the rebels. It is only a matter of time…..

Mar 27, 2011 10:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Nuton wrote:
The hand of God indeed. We don’t even know which hand we serve anymore. The parade of unintended consequences continues. We aid Al-Qaida rebels who will form the caliphate and bring unimaginable death, suffering and misery to us in the West and to Israel in the future. When will the stupidity end? When we are all dead? It’s like a never ending nightmare. Self-destruction on a massive scale. We’re so dense that we are routinely manipulated by our government and the press which is in their pocket. The press is even more stupid and misguided than the common people. At least the people still have a semblance of common sense left which the press wholly, utterly and painfully lacks. But cows for the dinner plate all. The elites bathe themselves in layers of superiority which makes them untouchable in their arrogance and utter ignorance. Our tax money is stolen and wasted by the trillions. Indignity and insanity is shoved down our throats daily and we accept it. We buy all of the lies of government and are lead around like sheep to the slaughter. How pathetic we all are. It’s a wonder that God has not wiped us off the earth already. That time may be soon at hand. Will anyone listen? Of course not. Some talk of a “normalcy bias” but I just think that it’s a ‘stupidity bias’. Are there many, many, many redeeming qualities? Absolutely. Will they be enough? That’s the question we all should be asking ourselves right now. The only relevant one. Or maybe not. Maybe we should just ask what Charlie Sheen will do next. Or whether we’re having great sex or not. Or just listen to the thousand other empty blathering voices which distract us further from our fate and taking control of our destroyed little lives. I guess we deserve what is coming… Apparently it is only through ‘fire’ that the ‘light’ can be seen. Because we are just that stupid. We should have taken care of this country and nurtured the miracle of it and utter gift that it is- unprecedented throughout all of our dirty little history. But no, we have chosen something different. We have chosen self destruction. How very pathetic.

Mar 27, 2011 10:57am EDT  --  Report as abuse
DeerHunter wrote:
It is no wonder that the goverment – bad as it is – is loosing this fight. The US and French have overstepped the UN mandates are have for a full week engaged groud troups for the Rebels. This is Nation Building under the pretense of protecting civilians with a no fly zone.

Mar 27, 2011 12:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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