AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s forces seized two strategic towns in eastern Libya on Tuesday, forcing rebel fighters to beat a hasty retreat and opening up the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi.
The junction town of Ajdabiyah fell after a heavy bombardment by ground forces that sent civilians streaming down the road toward safer territory. The oil port of Brega was taken after a morning of see-saw fighting.
Libyan state television said Gaddafi’s forces were now “in total control” of Ajdabiyah and a Reuters correspondent saw rebel forces pulling out of the town in convoys.
Government jets had opened up with rocket fire on the checkpoint at the western entrance to Ajdabiyah on Tuesday morning, then unleashed an artillery bombardment on the position and a nearby arms dump.
At least one missile hit a residential area. Residents piled into cars and pickups to flee town on highways leading toward Benghazi or Tobruk, which are still in rebel hands.
The same pattern of attack has pushed back rebels more than 100 miles in a week-long counter-offensive.
Ajdabiyah was all that stood between the eastward advance of Libyan government troops and the second city of Benghazi and lies on a road junction from where Gaddafi’s forces could attempt to encircle the rebel stronghold.
A rebel in Ajdabiyah told Reuters that Brega, 75 km (50 miles) to the southwest, had also fallen.
“We have lost Brega completely. We could not face Gaddafi’s forces,” said the rebel, who identified himself only as Nasser.
Fighters had earlier spoken of skirmishes throughout the city as each side fought to win control.
As well as the coastal road to Benghazi, there is also a 400 km (250 mile) desert road straight to Tobruk, near the Egyptian border that would cut off Benghazi. But it was not clear whether Gaddafi’s forces were strong enough to be split and whether they could operate with such long supply lines.
Al Jazeera television reported that elite army units commanded by Gaddafi’s sons were heading toward Brega, suggesting he wanted to swiftly and emphatically crush the month-long insurrection against his 41-year rule.
Gaddafi’s forces have advanced steadily eastwards along the coast to retake towns captured by rebels in the early days of the uprising.
The poorly equipped rebels have been outgunned by tanks, artillery and warplanes and are now in danger of being pushed all the way back to Benghazi, headquarters of their provisional national council.
Libyan state television has carried messages saying eastern towns and cities would be or had been “liberated” from the hands of what it calls “armed gangs” and terrorists inspired by al Qaeda. Since halting the rebel advance, Gaddafi’s forces have also recaptured the oil towns of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood