BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pressed further east with an artillery offensive against rebels on Wednesday, and rebel fighters said Western warplanes launched air strikes near Ras Lanuf, site of a major oil terminal.
Since they charged toward Gaddafi's stronghold of Sirte on Monday, rebels have been pushed back more than 150 km (95 miles) toward Brega, an oil town east of Ras Lanuf, by better-equipped government forces.
Hundreds of rebel cars and pick-ups mounted with machine guns streamed east through Brega on Wednesday in a state of confusion. They said they were fleeing rocket bombardment by Gaddafi forces.
As the retreat gathered pace, a Reuters correspondent heard aircraft, then a series of loud booms near Ras Lanuf.
A rebel fighter, Ahmed, returning from Ras Lanuf, told Reuters: "The French planes came and bombed Gaddafi's forces."
France was the first member of the international coalition to announce that it had launched air strikes on March 19, in a U.N.-mandated campaign to impose a no-fly zone and protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi's forces as he fights an uprising against his 41-year rule. Rebels commonly credit most air strikes to French aircraft.
Ras Lanuf has changed hands several times in the past month as the rag-tag insurgency struggles to hold on to gains without Western air strikes.
Some 10-15 km west of Brega, around a dozen rebel fighters stopped by the road and trained their guns south into the Sahara. Wisps of smoke could be seen in the distance.
"They (Gaddafi's forces) are coming from the desert," yelled one fighter. Another fired his Kalashnikov rifle in the air to scare away a group of camels.
There was no sign of the rebels regrouping in Brega and one said he was planning to go all the way to Ajdabiyah, the last big town before the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The retreat by the enthusiastic but poorly trained rebel forces highlights the tenuous nature of their gains and could presage a prolonged conflict.
"We need air strikes. If there were another aerial bombardment we could make it to Misrata... Kalashnikovs, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and light rockets -- these are our weapons," rebel fighter Muftah Mohammed told Reuters.
Another fighter, Rafa Abbas, said shortly before the aircraft were heard near Ras Lanuf: "Where is the French air force? We won't be able to get to Sirte except with help from the French air force."
Rebel fighters said they were overwhelmed by the superior firepower and range of Gaddafi's weapons.
"Gaddafi's forces have Grad (rockets) which have a range of 40 km... If we had Grads we could liberate Libya in a day," said Ezzedine Saleh.
Writing by Edmund Blair and Ibon Villelabeitia in Cairo; editing by Mark Trevelyan