AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels backed by allied air strikes retook the strategic town of Ajdabiyah on Saturday after an all-night battle that suggested the tide was turning against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the east.
In the west, France said its warplanes had destroyed five Libyan aircraft and two helicopters at an air base outside rebel-held Misrata. Pro-Gaddafi forces had earlier pounded the city with tank, mortar and artillery fire that halted only as coalition aircraft appeared overhead, a rebel told Reuters.
Western governments hope the raids, launched with the aim of protecting civilians, will also shift the balance of power in favor of the Arab world’s most violent popular revolt.
One inhabitant said 115 people had been killed in Misrata in a week and snipers were still shooting people from rooftops.
In Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air near buildings riddled with bullet holes. Half a dozen wrecked tanks lay near the eastern entrance to the town and the ground was strewn with empty shell casings.
Rebels said fighting had lasted through Friday night into Saturday. By the town’s western gate there were bodies of more than a dozen of Gaddafi’s fighters. An abandoned truckload of ammunition suggested his forces had beaten a hasty retreat.
“Thank you Britain, thank you France, thank you America,” said one rebel, praising the Western air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.
Capturing Ajdabiyah, a gateway from western Libya to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and the oil town of Tobruk, was a big morale boost for the rebels a week after coalition air strikes began to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone.
In Misrata, the only big insurgent stronghold left in Libya’s west, cut off from the main rebel force to the east, shelling by Gaddafi’s forces fell silent on Saturday when Western coalition planes appeared in the sky, a rebel said.
Libya’s third city is only about 200 km (120 miles) from the capital and Gaddafi can ill afford to leave it in the hands of anti-government protesters.
“He pulled his forces out of Ajdabiyah and Brega so that he puts all his weight in attacking Misrata and winning so he can control the whole west versus losing the whole east,” the rebel, called Saadoun, said by telephone.
The French armed forces said around 20 French aircraft supported by an AWACS surveillance plane struck targets during the day on Saturday, including five Galeb fighter jets and two MI-35 helicopters on the ground outside Misrata.
Rebels said they had seized control on Saturday of the oil port of Brega, 70 km (45 miles) west along the Mediterranean coast from Ajdabiyah. But there was no independent confirmation.
Brega, site of an oil export terminal and refinery, sprawls over a large area and overall control can be hard to determine.
“Brega is 100 percent in the hands of liberating forces,” said Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel spokesman in Benghazi.
Last week Libyan officials said nearly 100 civilians had been killed in the coalition strikes.
On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the assertion, saying: “The truth of the matter is we have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for.”
“We do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Gaddafi taking the bodies of the people he’s killed and putting them at the sites where we’ve attacked,” Gates told CBS News’ “Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, criticised by U.S. politicians across the spectrum for failing to communicate the goals of the air campaign, told Americans that the military mission in Libya was clear, focused and limited.
He said it had already saved countless civilian lives.
Obama said Libya’s air defenses had been disabled, Gaddafi’s forces were no longer advancing and, in places like Benghazi, his forces had been pushed back.
“So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- have been saved,” Obama said in a weekly radio address.
Obama, due to speak to Americans about Libya again on Monday evening, had also been faulted by fellow politicians for taking on another military mission in a Muslim country with the United States embroiled in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
NATO has agreed to take over that role in enforcing the no-fly zone and arms embargo against Libya, but final details have not yet been worked out for the military alliance to take over the air strikes on Gaddafi’s military and its equipment.
Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief news reports of the air strikes. Mostly it showed footage -- some of it grainy images years old -- of cheering crowds waving green flags and carrying portraits of Gaddafi.
Neither Gaddafi nor his sons have been shown on state television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his compound in Tripoli on Wednesday.
State TV said the “brother leader” had promoted all members of his armed forces and police “for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader colonialist assault.”
Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam Karouny and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Kevin Liffey