BIN JAWAD, Libya (AFP) – Loyalist troops on Monday halted a rebel advance on Moamer Kadhafi’s home town Sirte, which was pounded overnight by coalition jets after NATO took command of military operations in Libya.
An AFP reporter said rebels who for the past two days have raced westwards towards Sirte came under heavy machine-gun fire from regime loyalists in pick-up trucks on the road from Bin Jawad to Nofilia.
The rebels on Sunday seized Bin Jawad, 140 kilometres (85 miles) east of Sirte, after retaking the key oil town of Ras Lanuf as they advanced with the support of coalition air strikes on Kadhafi’s forces.
After coming under fire on Monday, the insurgents pulled back into Bin Jawad and opened up with heavy artillery.
An AFP reporter said nine powerful explosions early Monday rocked Sirte, 360 kilometres (225 miles) east of Tripoli, as warplanes flew overhead and the coalition operation to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya entered its ninth day.
The explosions, between 0420 GMT and 0435 GMT, followed two loud blasts on Sunday evening blamed by state television on an air raid by coalition forces.
NATO finally took full command of military operations in Libya from a US-led coalition on Sunday, enabling the alliance to strike at Kadhafi forces should they threaten civilians.
Alliance officials cautioned, however, that the transfer of command would take 48 to 72 hours.
Pressed by Western powers, notably the United States and Italy, to take the helm as swiftly as possible, ambassadors from the 28-nation alliance approved the transfer after overcoming French and Turkish concerns.
“Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Kadhafi regime,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said.
Rasmussen will join foreign ministers from more than 35 countries at a conference in London on Tuesday to discuss coalition military action against Libya, his office said.
The command transfer came as Tripoli also came under attack by what state television called “the colonial aggressor,” hours ahead of US President Barack Obama’s planned address Monday in Washington to explain US involvement.
Witnesses in the capital said the strikes targeted the road to the airport 10 kilometres (six miles) outside the city, as well as the Ain Zara neighbourhood on its eastern outskirts.
State news agency JANA reported that coalition warplanes had also launched a dawn air raid on residential areas of Kadhafi’s southern stronghold of Sebha.
“Crusader forces bombed residential districts of Sebha at dawn, damaging homes and causing several casualties,” the agency said, without giving a toll.
Opposition representatives in Benghazi, meanwhile, were trying to form a government-in-waiting.
At present, the official voice of Libya’s opposition rests with the so-called Provisional Transitional National Council (PTNC), a group of 31 members representing the country’s major cities and towns.
Qatar on Monday became the second nation, after France, to recognise the PTNC as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Libyan people, the Gulf state’s QNA state news agency said.
Of the 31 PTNC members, the names of only 13 have been publicly revealed: council spokesmen argue it is still too dangerous to identify members in areas still controlled by Kadhafi.
The rebels promised the uprising would not further hamper oil production in areas under their control, and the opposition plans to begin exporting oil “in less than a week,” a rebel representative said.
“We are producing about 100,000 to 130,000 barrels a day, we can easily up that to about 300,000 a day,” Ali Tarhoni, the rebel representative responsible for economy, finance and oil, told a news conference.
The rebels, on the verge of losing their Benghazi stronghold before the air strikes began on March 19, on Saturday seized back Ajdabiya and Brega, 160 and 240 kilometres (100 and 150 miles) to the west.
Spurred on by the air war, the rag-tag rebel band thrust another 100 kilometres past Brega to win back Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, routing Kadhafi loyalists.
They saw Monday’s skirmish on the outskirts of Bin Jawad as being but a temporary halt to their westwards push, confident that coalition warplanes would reopen the road to Sirte for them.
Pick-ups flying the green flag of Tripoli and mounted with heavy machine guns opened up on the rebels who replied with “Stalin organ” multiple rocket launchers and cannon fire.
A salvo of shells from Kadhafi’s forces slammed into sand dunes near Bin Jawad and a rebel fighter fell.
A 10-minute incoming artillery barrage panicked the thousand or so rebels along the road outside Bin Jawad, sending them fleeing in disorder.
Had Kadhafi’s guns hit the road proper, there would have been a massacre among the insurgents, some of whom were armed only with shotguns.
“It won’t be as easy as we thought to take Sirte and then march on Tripoli,” said 20-year-old rebel fighter Ahmad al-Badri, wearing incomplete battledress and clutching an old Kalashnikov.
Instead of a flak jacket, he wore a highly visible orange life jacket.
“But we won’t stop — we’ll advance. They can’t hold us up for long,” Badri added.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said intervention in Libya was not vital to Washington’s interests, but explained: “You had a potentially significantly destabilising event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt.”
He added: “Egypt is central to the future of the Middle East.”