AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels backed by allied air strikes retook the strategic town of Ajdabiyah on Saturday after an all-night battle that suggested the tide was turning against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the east.
France said its warplanes had destroyed five Libyan and two helicopters on the ground at an air base outside the insurgent- held town of Misrata. Pro-Gaddafi forces had earlier pounded the town with tank, mortar and artillery fire that halted only as coalition aircraft appeared overhead, a rebel told Reuters.
One inhabitant said 115 people had been killed in Misrata in a week and snipers were still shooting people from rooftops.
In Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air near buildings riddled with bullet holes. Half a dozen wrecked tanks lay near the eastern entrance to the town and the ground was strewn with empty shell casings.
Rebels said fighting had lasted through the night. By the town’s western gate there were bodies of more than a dozen Gaddafi fighters, and an abandoned truckload of ammunition suggested Gaddafi forces had beaten a hasty retreat.
“Thank you Britain, thank you France, thank you America,” said one rebel, praising Western air strikes against Gaddafi targets.
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 a week after coalition air strikes began to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone.
Western governments hope the raids, launched with the aim of protecting civilians, will also shift the balance of power in favor of the Arab world’s most violent popular revolt.
In Misrata, the only big insurgent stronghold left in Libya’s west and cut off from the main rebel force to the east, shelling by Gaddafi’s forces fell silent on Saturday when Western coalition planes appeared in the sky, a rebel said.
“The shelling stopped when the planes appeared in the sky,” the rebel, called Saadoun, said by telephone.
“It seems his (Gaddafi’s) focus now is Misrata,” he said.
“He pulled his forces out of Ajdabiyah and Brega so that he puts all his weight in attacking Misrata and winning so he can control the whole west versus losing the whole east.”
Earlier, Saadoun told Reuters Gaddafi forces had attacked the city from the west and the east, shelling the port with mortars and artillery, and sending tanks along a coastal road.
Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, has been encircled and under bombardment for weeks, but Western aircraft and missiles have been increasing their raids on government positions there.
Reports from Misrata could not be independently verified.
The Pentagon said there had been air strikes overnight from Friday to Saturday at Libyan targets but no Tomahawk missiles.
“Aircraft strikes included fixed targets and maneuver forces along the coastline and near the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Ajdabiyah,” said Captain Darryn James, a Pentagon spokesman.
REBELS SAY FORCES SEIZE BREGA
Rebels said they had seized control on Saturday of the oil port of Brega, 70 km (45 miles) west along the Mediterranean coast from Ajdabiyah. But there was no independent confirmation.
Brega, site of an oil export terminal and refinery, sprawls over a large area and overall control can be hard to determine.
“Brega is 100 percent in the hands of liberating forces,” Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel spokesman in Benghazi, said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, criticized by U.S. politicians across the spectrum for failing to communicate the goals of the air campaign, told Americans that the military mission in Libya was clear, focused and limited.
He said it had already saved countless civilian lives.
Obama said Libya’s air defenses had been disabled, Gaddafi’s forces were no longer advancing and in places like Benghazi, his forces had been pushed back.
“So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians — innocent men, women and children — have been saved,” Obama said in a weekly radio address.
Obama, due to speak to Americans about Libya again on Monday evening, had also been faulted by fellow politicians for taking on another military mission in a Muslim country with the United States embroiled in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
NATO has agreed to take over that role in enforcing the no-fly zone and arms embargo against Libya, but final details have not yet been worked out for the military alliance to take over the air strikes on Gaddafi’s military and its equipment.
Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief news reports of the 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.”
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam Karouny and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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