BIR-AYYAD, Libya, (Reuters) – Libyan rebels who had advanced to within 80 km (50 miles) of Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in the capital were forced to retreat yesterday after coming under a barrage of rocket fire from government forces.
The rebels advanced five days ago to the outskirts of the small town of Bir al-Ghanam, raising the possibility of a breakthrough in a four-month old conflict that has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Rebel fighters who had been massing on a ridge near Bir al-Ghanam and preparing for an attack were pulled back under fire from Russian-made Grad rockets, said a Reuters photographer in Bir-Ayyad, 30 km to the south.
The rebels returned to the same positions on the edges of Bir al-Ghanam yesterday afternoon, Reuters reporters there said.
The rocket barrage reached as far back as Bir-Ayyad, a road junction in the foothills of the Western Mountains range south-west of Tripoli from where the rebels had launched their advance last week.
The back-and-forth battle underlined the military stalemate between Gaddafi’s forces, who have withstood 15 weeks of bombardment by NATO missiles and warplanes, and rebels attempting to break through their lines on three fronts.
In an address carried by Libyan television and broadcast to some 100,000 supporters who gathered on Friday in Tripoli’s Green Square, Gaddafi vowed to stay on and warned NATO to stop its air war or face defeat.