AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - NATO aircraft hit six vehicles carrying Libyan government soldiers during an assault on the eastern town of Ajdabiyah on Sunday, killing at least 15.
The strikes appeared to have helped break an assault by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on Ajdabiyah, a strategic town 150 km (90 miles) km south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
In Brussels, NATO said it had destroyed 25 government tanks in air strikes during the day — 11 near Ajdabiyah and 14 on the outskirts of Misrata, the only rebel bastion in western Libya that has been under siege for six weeks.
“The situation in Ajdabiyah, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the (Gaddafi) regime,” said Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, who commands NATO’s Libya operations.
A Reuters reporter saw 15 charred bodies scattered around burned and overturned vehicles in two separate sites about 300 meters apart on the western outskirts of Ajdabiyah, which Gaddafi’s forces had been attacking all day.
Rebels said there had been two NATO air strikes.
The rebel-held town had come under sustained artillery and rocket attack since morning and there were clashes between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists who penetrated the town center.
But by early afternoon the rebels looked back in control and seemed to have cleared the town. They commanded key intersections and fired six rockets toward the west.
It was the most determined government assault on Ajdabiyah for at least a week.
Rebel Hazim Ahmed showed a Reuters reporter a large bloodstain in the corner of a schoolroom in the town.
“One of the snipers, who was Algerian, was crouching here in the corner when we surrounded him and he shot himself in the neck,” Ahmed said. The rebels accuse Gaddafi of using foreign mercenaries to fight the revolt.
Orange juice cartons, stale bread and banana peels were scattered around the room.
Gaddafi forces including snipers thrust into Ajdabiyah when the government assault began on Saturday.
NATO air strikes have also sought to take out ammunition bunkers and lines of communications to help fulfill a United Nations mandate to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone during a rebellion against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
“We are hitting the regime’s logistics facilities as well as their heavy weapons...,” Bouchard said.
“One recent strike cratered the road leading to Ajdabiya, west of Brega, where his fuel and ammunition is being moved forward on large trucks. Further west we hit two more storage bunkers where the ammunition is coming from.”
Until Sunday morning, the rebels appeared to be losing control of the Ajdabiyah, cowering in alleys to escape artillery fire or dashing around in pick-ups, but they managed to mount a successful counter-attack in the afternoon.
The corpses of four rebels were found dumped on a roadside during the morning. “Their throats were slit. They were all shot a few times in the chest as well. I just could not stop crying when I saw them,” said rebel Muhammad Saad. “This is becoming tougher and tougher.”
Insurgent Hassan Bosayna said eight Gaddafi fighters and four rebels were killed in fighting on Saturday, with one of the rebels shot in the forehead by a sniper.
At Ajdabiyah’s hospital, a group of rebels stood over the body of what they said was an Algerian who had fought for Gaddafi. It was not clear whether this body was of the sniper who shot himself.
“Algerian dog,” the rebels said, before shouting “God is great” and driving the body off to the morgue in a pick-up.
The mostly untrained rebels have tried to reorganize and re-equip but were unable to hold their ground last week against Gaddafi’s better-armed and trained forces in the oil terminal of Brega, 70 km (45 miles) further west.
They complain bitterly that they are outgunned by Gaddafi’s forces and urge the West to supply them with heavy weapons, saying the Western alliance is not doing all it could.
NATO has defended itself by saying its ability to target government armor has been curtailed by Gaddafi’s use of human shields to protect his equipment. But it has said its air strikes have intensified over the last couple of days.
Ajdabiyah is the last major town on the Mediterranean coastal road before Benghazi and the major oil terminal of Tobruk further east. Keeping Tobruk is vital for the insurgents to be able to export crude to fund their uprising.
Losing Ajdabiyah would be a serious setback for the rebel leadership, which has rebuffed any suggestion of a negotiated settlement with Gaddafi and has vowed to overthrow him.
South African President Jacob Zuma was due to meet Gaddafi on Sunday before traveling to Benghazi for talks with the rebels in an African Union effort to mediate in the civil war.