BIN JAWAD, Libya – Libyan rebels' push westwards towards Tripoli gathered momentum on Sunday as their pursuit of Moamer Kadhafi's forces saw them wrest back control of key oil town Ras Lanuf.
Their next target is Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a central coastal city, and on the way they captured Bin Jawad, a hamlet 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Ras Lanuf, AFP correspondents reported.
The rebels, on the verge of losing their eastern stronghold city of Benghazi 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 ragtag rebel band thrust another 100 kilometres past Brega to win back Ras Lanuf, routing Kadhafi loyalists.
Jubilant rebels stuck up a poster of Kadhafi in Bin Jawad and took potshots at it with automatic rifles as a green Libyan regime flag burned and a group of about 100 chanted: "Moamer, you're a dog".
"Kadhafi's forces are now scared rats," Mohammed Ali el-Atwish, a bearded 42-year-old fighter, told AFP.
"They are dropping their weapons and uniforms and dressing as civilians. We are no longer concerned about Kadhafi's forces at all."
The rebel fighters marked the takeover of Ras Lanuf with celebratory gunfire and fired a rocket-propelled grenade in a sign of victory.
One of them, Attia Hamad, 34, said insurgents were in full control of the town.
"All of it is in our hands," Hamad said of Ras Lanuf, which Kadhafi's forces had overrun on March 12. Loyalists were "retreating so quickly, they are leaving some fighters behind," he added.
Foreign ministers from more than 35 countries have so far confirmed they will attend a London conference on Tuesday to discuss coalition military action against Libya, Britain said.
Many Libyan diplomats and military leaders are defecting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on the eighth day of the coalition operation.
"We have a lot of diplomats and military leaders in Libya who are flipping, changing sides, defecting," Clinton told CBS television.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said intervention in Libya was not vital to US 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."
Elsewhere, Gates reiterated that regime change was not part of the military mission in Libya.
"As we've seen in the past, regime change is a very complicated business, sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it can happen very fast. But it was never part of the military mission (in Libya)," he told ABC television.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said overnight that the Western-led air strikes were killing soldiers and civilians between the strategic town of Ajdabiya and Sirte.
"Tonight the air strikes against our nation continue with full power," he said.
"We are losing many lives, military and civilians," Ibrahim added, while renewing a call for a ceasefire and an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, which approved military action to stop the Libyan regime's attacks on civilians.
Pope Benedict XVI called for the international community to begin immediate dialogue in Libya to bring about a ceasefire.
Speaking to pilgrims at the Vatican, the Pope said: "I launch a heartfelt appeal to international organisations and those with political and military responsibilities to immediately launch a dialogue that will suspend the use of arms."
NATO was poised to agree Sunday to take command of military operations against Kadhafi's regime at a meeting in Brussels after days of fraught talks over objections raised by France and Turkey.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday set out the broad outlines of a diplomatic plan to resolve the crisis in Libya that could include exile for Kadhafi.
"We cannot envisage a solution in which he would stay in power," Frattini told La Repubblica daily, adding that "clearly exile for Kadhafi would be different."
President Barack Obama, under pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a "bloodbath" threatened by Kadhafi.
The Pentagon said the strikes had continued apace on Saturday with 160 missions flown, compared to 153 a day earlier.
In Libya's west, French fighter jets destroyed at least five warplanes and two helicopters of the pro-Kadhafi forces in the Zintan and Misrata regions on Saturday, said a statement on the French armed forces website.
On Saturday, the rebels, backed by the Western barrage, poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents reported.
The bodies of at least two pro-Kadhafi fighters were surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing into the air and shouting "God is greatest."
Outside Ajdabiya, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP.
Regime loyalists had dug in at the town after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes.
"The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop," Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP.
"I couldn't move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on."
A rebel fighter told AFP that insurgents had also retaken the oil town of Brega on Saturday and AFP correspondents in Brega confirmed this on Sunday.
Brega was deserted and there were signs Kadhafi's forces beat a hasty retreat, with heavy artillery and pick-up trucks abandoned in streets lined by pock-marked buildings.