* Renewed fighting around Ajdabiyah
* Gaddafi tells rebels to lay down their arms
* Gaddafi son says rebel stronghold in sights
By Khaled al Ramahi
NEAR AJDABIYAH, Libya, March 17 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
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
Another Benghazi resident, Faiza Ali, said she spoke to
relatives in Ajdabiyah on Wednesday evening. "They said they are
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
"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
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
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)