BENGHAZI-AJDABIYAH ROAD, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s wrecked tanks and other army vehicles smoldered on a strategic road in east Libya on Sunday after Western powers launched air strikes that galvanized embattled rebels.
Rebels who had been driven back to their stronghold of Benghazi by the Libyan leader’s air, sea and land offensive in the past two weeks were returning in 4x4 pick-ups to the town of Ajdabiyah, the hard fought over gateway to east Libya.
The road the rebels drove was a scene of devastation. This correspondent counted at least 16 corpses, though the scale of the bombardment made identifying bodies difficult.
“This is all France ... Today we came through and saw the road open,” said rebel fighter Tahir Sassi, surveying one area where blackened vehicles lined the road to Ajdabiyah, about 150 km south of Benghazi. Lamp posts were broken in two or bent double.
About 14 tanks, 20 armored personnel carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick-ups — all destroyed — were visible, indicating the strength of the force sent to retake Benghazi from rebels.
One tank was a blackened wreck with its turret blown off. Another tank, a tank transporter and armored personnel carriers smoldered. A few hundred meters (yards) ahead, munitions were still exploding as flames licked around vehicles and stores.
Rebels had pleaded for military intervention as they were pushed back and after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no pity” as he advanced toward Benghazi where the interim rebel National Libyan Council has its headquarters.
France led the calls for intervention and its planes were the first into Libyan airspace to launch raids, before U.S. and British warships and submarines fired Tomahawk missiles overnight against air defenses.
About 70 km (45 miles) out of Benghazi, rebels faced small arms fire. Mortar rounds launched by Gaddafi’s forces to the south landed on either side of the road. Rebels fired back.
“Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can’t fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck,” said Fathi Bin Saud, a 52-year-old rebel carrying a rocket propelled grenade launcher and surveying the wreckage.
“There is no more retreat, we are going forward from now on,” he said. “Not all of this is the coalition. We did some of it as well. They encourage us. We were fighting even before they came. This has raised our morale.”
Rebels, who have mainly relied on 4x4 pickups with machine guns, were heavily outgunned by Gaddafi before the West acted.
They reached the town of Bin Jawad about 525 km (330 miles) east of Tripoli before being driven back to Ajdabiyah, more than 700 km from the capital.
Battle debris on the road out of Benghazi showed Gaddafi’s forces had nearly breached the inner parts of the city. Near Tarria village about 20 km south of Benghazi on the highway to Ajdabiyah, locals said they had advanced up the road early on Saturday and were only beaten back by the first foreign air strikes after fighting reached the suburbs.
Civilians and fighters clambered on the ruined tanks, taking photos and picking through the pockets of the dead.
Mohamed Joma, who said he was a pharmacist, said the planes had struck about 4 am (0200 GMT) that morning.
“Look, the tanks were pointing to Benghazi. They wanted to go to Benghazi. They did not escape,” he said.
Some of the bodies on the road were charred, others were already covered with blankets. Some were beside vehicles and one lay inside a destroyed ambulance, with no sign of those who would have attended him.
Flesh and blood was smeared on the ground at one spot, where there were bandages scattered on the floor.
Gaddafi’s forces about 20 km south of Benghazi appeared to have been taken by surprise by one air strike on their camp.
Enough bedding and clothes for hundreds of men littered the area for 200 meters on either side of the road, along with boots, body armor, cigarettes and cassette tapes.
“Tell the West to destroy Gaddafi slowly, piece by piece by piece, the way he did to us for 40 years,” said Jamal al-Majbouri, who owns a farm nearby.
Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo, editing by Mike Peacock