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Rebels rout Gaddafi forces

world Updated: Mar 26, 2011 18:19 IST

Reuters
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Libyan rebels backed by allied air strikes retook the strategic town of Ajdabiyah on Saturday after an all-night battle that suggests the tide is turning against Muammar Gaddafi's forces in the east.

Rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air near buildings riddled with bulletholes. Half a dozen wrecked tanks lay near the eastern entrance to the town and the ground was strewn with empty shell casings.

There were signs of heavy fighting at Ajdabiyah's western gate. The decomposing bodies of more than a dozen Gaddafi fighters were strewn over the ground. An abandoned truckload of ammunition suggested Gaddafi forces had beaten a hasty retreat.

"All of Ajdabiyah is free and all the way to Brega is free," said Faraj Joeli, a 20-year-old computer science student turned rebel fighter.

There was little sign of destruction in the town centre and the few remaining inhabitants who had not fled began emerging from their homes. Rebel fighters drove around firing guns in the air or distributed bread, flour and water to residents.

MORALE BOOST

Capturing Ajdabiyah, a gateway from western Libya to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and the oil town of Tobruk, was a big morale boost for the rebels after two weeks on the back foot.

Western governments hope the raids, launched a week ago with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the balance of power in favour of the Arab world's most violent popular revolt.

A Reuters correspondent in Ajdabiyah said it seemed clear that air attacks there on Friday afternoon had been decisive. Gaddafi's better-armed forces halted an early rebel advance near the major oil export terminal of Ras Lanuf two weeks ago and pushed them back to Benghazi, until Western powers struck Gaddafi's positions from the sea and air.

Witnesses and rebel fighters said the Gaddafi forces had now retreated 40 km (25 miles) west towards the oil town of Brega.

Pro-Gaddafi forces were continuing attacks on the rebel-held western city of Misrata and had taken control of its eastern and western entrances, a resident told Reuters.

Snipers were on rooftops in the centre of the city, where 115 people have been killed in the past week, the resident said.

Officials and rebels said aid organisations were able to deliver some supplies to Misrata but were concerned about the snipers.

A rebel spokesman in Benghazi, Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, said two civilians in Misrata were killed by shelling on Saturday morning and six injured.

He said the rebels had not received any weapons from abroad and were still asking for them.

NATO OPERATION COULD LAST MONTHS

In Tripoli, explosions were heard early on Saturday, signalling possible new strikes by warplanes or missiles.

Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief news reports of Western air strikes. Mostly it showed footage -- some of it grainy images years old -- of cheering crowds waving green flags and carrying portraits of Gaddafi.

Neither Gaddafi nor his sons have been shown on state television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his Tripoli compound on Wednesday.

State TV said the "brother leader" had promoted all members of his armed forces and police "for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault".

US President Barack Obama told Americans on Saturday the allied mission in Libya had saved countless civilian lives. The African Union said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end the war, but NATO said its operation could last three months, and France said the conflict could go on for weeks.