March 27, 2011 / 3:05 AM / 6 years ago

Rebels push west as air strikes hit Gaddafi forces

<p>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.Finbarr O'Reilly</p>

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.


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.


<p>Rebel fighters gather at the front line between Bin Jawad and Sirte, after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fled westward following coalition air strikes in eastern Libya, March 27, 2011.Finbarr O'Reilly</p>

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.

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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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