BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s ramshackle rebel army pushed west yesterday to retake a series of towns from the forces of Muammar Gaddafi as they pulled back under pressure from Western air strikes.
Emboldened by the capture of the strategic town of Ajdabiyah with the help of foreign warplanes on Saturday, the rebels have within two days dramatically reversed military losses in their five-week insurgency and regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.
Rebels said they now had their sights on the coastal town of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and an important military base about 150 km further along the coastal road.
A Reuters reporter in Sirte heard four blasts last night. It was unclear if they were in the town or its outskirts.
The reporter also saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns leaving Sirte and moving westwards towards Tripoli, along with dozens of civilian cars carrying families and stuffed with personal belongings.
“We want to go to Sirte today. I don’t know if it will happen,” said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with a hundred others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
The advance along Libya’s Mediterranean coast by a poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels indicated that Western strikes under a UN no-fly zone were shifting the battlefield dynamics dramatically, in the east at least.
The rebels are now back in control of the main oil terminals in the east — Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk — while Gaddafi appears to be retrenching in the west.
Nearer the capital, Gaddafi’s forces fought rebels in the centre of Misrata, Libya’s third city, to try to consolidate his grip on western Libya. Misrata is the only western city still in rebel hands and has been sealed off for weeks.
A resident called Saadoun told Reuters by phone that at least eight people were killed and 24 wounded as Gaddafi’s forces fired mortars while attacking Misrata from the west in a day of fighting.
Pro-Gaddafi snipers were also pinning down rebel forces but late last night the fighting died down.
A rebel called Mohammed told Reuters by phone that pro-Gaddafi forces controlled “only one small area, a couple of streets” in the western part of the city.
Residents told Reuters they were having to use wells to get water and that medicines were in short supply.