AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi advanced westward on Tuesday aiming to retake the oil town of Brega in a push to extend their control over the east of the North African country.
Blasts rumbled around the desert as the offensive, launched on Sunday, gathered momentum after weeks of deadlock between rebels and Gaddafi forces on the eastern front. Up to 21 fighters have been killed, rebels and doctors said.
“There is fighting happening there right now. We have advanced to 20 km (east of) Brega. They (rebels) are advancing now. Very soon they will be in Brega,” said fighter Osman al-Maghrabi, 35, who used to serve in Gaddafi’s army.
“I think we will be having Friday prayers in Brega this week,” he added. Another rebel said their forces had retreated a few kilometers since Monday but were now pushing west again.
A convoy of Russian-designed armored personnel carriers fitted with anti-aircraft guns rolled past Ajdabiyah’s western gate toward Brega, 75 km west of Ajdabiyah. Rebels seated on top cheered, waved opposition flags and fired in the air.
Dozens of pick-ups mounted with machineguns also sped along the coastal highway snaking westwards toward Brega, the deep blue of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sun to the north.
Rebels had mounted similar advances many times in the past and failed. Battered pick-up trucks with machineguns had long been their main workhorse in the desert but this time the level of deployment appeared to be more serious.
Taking Brega is important for the rebel forces. Beside some small settlements and Ras Lanuf oil terminal, the road beyond is mostly open desert to Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown.
Charred hulks of Gaddafi tanks destroyed in Western air strikes were scattered along the road. NATO forces have bombed Gaddafi loyalist positions here in past weeks and have used attack helicopters, deployed to enable more accurate targeting.
Brega — a sprawling coastal town home to an oil export terminal and other oil installations — has changed hands several times since the revolt against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule erupted in mid-February.
Rebels had initially raced along the main coast road from Ajdabiyah to Brega, Ras Lanuf and beyond but were thrown back, more than once, by Gaddafi’s superior firepower.
Given Brega’s strategic role, Gaddafi troops have dug in and put up a fierce defense, blocking a new rebel push westward.
The eastern front line has barely shifted as Gaddafi forces shelled and ambushed rebel convoys trying to reach the oil hub.
Locals said rebel morale was now stronger and they were determined to break the deadlock. People in Ajdabiyah cheered as armored vehicles rumbled past toward Brega on Tuesday, waving rebel tricolor flags and flashing peace signs.
“We are pushing for Brega. We are optimistic,” said Mohamed Abdel-Karim, a doctor at the main hospital in Ajdabiyah, 860 km (540 miles) east of the capital.
“Two days ago we received 50 wounded and 7 dead, and yesterday, 37 wounded and 6 dead. Today it is quiet so far, but we are ready for new casualties.”
In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a rebel spokesman put the death toll from the latest fighting at 21.
In Ajdabiyah, a ghost town since hostilities began in February, life appeared to return to normal, albeit slowly. Many house fronts and mosques were pockmarked with gaping holes from rocket propelled grenade attacks and bullet marks.
But some shops were open and doctors in the main hospital said they had enough supplies and medicine.
“It was never entirely quiet in this hospital. Now there is a lot more happening,” said a junior doctor in Ajdabiyah hospital, who gave his name only as Khaled.
“Our revolutionaries are fighting hard. They are united and they will take Brega soon. Gaddafi will not last long.”
At a checkpoint on the western side of Ajdabiyah, rebel soldiers inspected ammunition belts from their machineguns and prepared shells for a long-range missile system deployed nearby.
They waved and smiled at passing rebel pick-ups and armored vehicles. Although locals had seen similar attempts to retake Brega in the past, many were still optimistic.
“We will take it (Brega) in one week, I am sure. I want it to be this way,” said Salah Buzed, 33, a civil servant. “Everyone, my family, my neighbors all think so.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina and Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens