Under fire, rebels beat rapid retreat

Gadhafi forces unleash rockets and artillery on lightly armed anti-govt fighters

ON THE BACK FOOT: Rebels retreat after forces loyal to Muammar Gadhafi attacked them near Brega in eastern Libya, on  Wednesday. REUTERS

Aided by Western air strikes, rebels had made a two-day charge along more than 200 km of barren coast and seized strategic oil terminals. They have now retreated, giving up gains to Gadhafi’s better armed troops.

The failure of the rebels to hold ground and put pressure on Gadhafi, despite more than 10 days of Western-led air strikes, is likely to unsettle the US, Britain, France and others who want to see the Libyan leader step down.

Hundreds of rebel pick-ups mounted with machine guns and other vehicles streamed east of Brega with little sign of order, heading towards Ajdabiyah, a town that rebels took five days to retake from Gadhafi even after air strikes were launched.

“We are going to Ajdabiyah,” said rebel fighter Mohamed al-Abreigi. “We will gather there and, god willing, we will head back to Brega today (Wednesday).”

Dozens of rebel vehicles gathered at the western gate to Ajdabiyah, a town which lies about 140 km south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But rebels did not seem to be regrouping into defensive positions there.

One man in military fatigues shouted: “Civilians inside, civilians inside.”
When asked what was happening, one rebel said: “We don’t know. They say there may be a group (from Gadhafi’s forces) coming from the south.” To the south is open desert.
Ajdabiyah, battered by the to-and-fro of fighting, stands at the gateway to the rebel held east of Libya.

It is located on a key junction with one route heading to Benghazi and another northeast to the oil port of Tobruk near the Egyptian border. Libyan families were fleeing north to Benghazi as news of the retreat spread. The road out of Ajdabiyah was packed with cars carrying families and their belongings.

Rebels had advanced beyond the coastal town of Bin Jawad, about 525 km east of the capital Tripoli.

But as they approached Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, they came up against the Libyan leader’s heavier weaponry.

“Gadhafi’s forces have Grad (rockets) which have a range of 40 km ... If we had Grads we could liberate Libya in a day,” said rebel fighter Ezzedine Saleh.

Another fighter, Muftah Mohammed, told Reuters: “Kalashnikovs, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and light rockets—these are our weapons.”

Rebels regularly appeal for better weapons from the West and more air strikes. But even some members of the rebel movement have admitted that one of the biggest challenges is keeping discipline in their enthusiastic but inexperienced force.

Few rebel fighters have much formal military training. They have proved keen to race to the front but equally swift to fall back with little sign of order when big guns fire at them. Their own weapons offer little to block Gadhafi’s advance.

“Where is the French air force? We won’t be able to get to Sirte except with help from the French air force,” said rebel Rafa Abbas near Ras Lanuf, moments before aircraft roared overhead. A series of loud booms followed.

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