* Rebels retreat under intense bombardment
* Three air strikes close to east Libya rebel checkpoint
* Front line is fast moving
* "Blink and we are back in again" - rebel
(Adds new material from battlefield, comments by Abdel Jalil)
By Mohammed Abbas
UQAYLAH, Libya, March 12 Libyan troops forced
rebels to retreat overnight from the outskirts of the oil town
of Ras Lanuf, pushing the front line eastwards, and the rebel
council's chief said more volunteers were ready to fight.
The front line now stands between the rebel-held town of
Uqaylah and Ras Lanuf, where oil storage tanks were hit during
Friday's fighting. Rebels blamed an air strike but the
government denied hitting the oil plant.
Libya's rebels said there were more fighters standing by.
"The volunteers now at the front are less than 30 percent of
the people who are willing to go and fight, our people are ready
and determined to fight Gaddafi's forces," Libyan National
Council chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil told Reuters in an interview.
It was clear the rebels had retreated from Ras Lanuf, but
with a rapidly-moving battlefield, just how far was uncertain.
"We're out of Ras Lanuf. They've beaten us back with
bombardment," rebel Colonel Bashir Abdul Qadr told Reuters.
"We've moved back 20 km (12 miles) from last night because we
are also afraid the refinery will explode."
"Yesterday evening there was heavy bombing from Libyan war
planes. This bombardment made us take positions back from Ras
Lanuf, but not 20 km as we heard, we are 3 km (away), rebel
Colonel Hamed al-Hasi told Arabiya news network, adding:
"I advise journalists not to enter the field of operations
because we cannot guarantee their safety."
THREE AIR STRIKES
There were three air strikes close to a checkpoint near the
town of Uqaylah, (40 km, 25 miles from Ras Lanuf) unsettling the
rebels who moved off the road and into the desert.
The colonel told Reuters that, according to engineers, the
refinery at Ras Lanuf will blow up in the next five days due to
the damage sustained in the operation to retake the town with a
fierce land, sea and air assault.
This could not be independently corroborated.
Main story [ID:nLDE72B01K]
Rebels, armed mainly with anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns,
rocket propelled grenade launchers and light weapons, fought
back to hold Ras Lanuf, about 590 km (370 miles) east of
Tripoli, but were overwhelmed by Gaddafi's firepower.
"The city is a ghost town. The presence of civilians there
is very difficult because of the intensity of the bombardment.
Gaddafi's forces are still present in Ras Lanuf, ... Under the
aerial cover, they seized the opportunity yesterday," said
"The battles are far from the oil areas, the battles are on
the outskirts of Ras Lanuf."
Some 4x4 vehicles with heavy weapons moved back towards Ras
Lanuf from the front line in this barren landscape dotted with
oil terminals that divides the west with Tripoli as its capital
from the rebel-held east and Libya's second city of Benghazi.
The colonel was keen to boost the morale of a group of about
40 troops, saying: "Anyone who is willing to fight and become a
martyr, come and fight!" To which the fighters replied: "Allahu
Akbar! (God is greatest!)"
"BLINK AND WE ARE BACK"
Some of the fighters lay on the side of the road in the sun
waiting for a chance to push forward into Ras Lanuf. They did
not seem to be concerned about having to fall back and said that
the conflict involved a lot of advancing and retreating.
"Ras Lanuf is not Gaddafi's at all," said Mohamed Hassan,
22, a rebel fighter. "Blink and we are back in again," he said.
Another rebel with Hassan, when asked if he felt tired,
said: "We have been tired of Gaddafi for 41 years. Now we are
rid of him we are not tired at all."
Many rebels spread into the desert away from the strategic
Mediterranean coastal road. At the Uqaylah checkpoint, one rebel
volunteer, said: "We can't guarantee your safety ahead."
On the question of securing arms supply from abroad, Abdel
Jalil, a former justice minister, said:
"Some people (in the revolution) in their capacity are
making efforts to get some weapons, if a no-fly zone and
restrictions on Gaddafi's ships are not imposed, Libya's
civilians are going to suffer."
Prior to being pushed back at Ras Lanuf, the rebels had made
one of their objectives capturing Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte.
When asked if it was possible to take Sirte without foreign
help, Abdel Jalil said:
"People in Sirte and other cities such as Tripoli are with
the revolution, but they have been under siege. Gaddafi forces
have been surrounding these cities and we are going there just
to break the siege, not to do more."
If Gaddafi forces reached the rebel stronghold of Benghazi,
Libya's second city, "this would mean the death of half a
million," he said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Tom Pfeiffer; Writing by Peter
Millership; Editing by Matthew Jones)