AJDABIYA, Libya — Libya’s rebels said they were in control of Brega on Monday as loyalist forces retreated leaving just 150-200 fighters pinned down inside the refinery town but the government insisted it had repulsed the rebel assault.
“The bulk of (Moamer) Kadhafi’s forces have retreated to Ras Lanuf,” rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah told AFP, referring to another oil hub some 50 kilometres (32 miles) to the west.
The loyalist forces were said to have been led in retreat by their commander, Kadhafi’s son Mutassim, according to another rebel military source citing intercepted radio chatter.
But deep in the town’s industrial zone some remnants of Kadhafi’s forces were still holed up, left with dwindling supplies and what must be a growing sense of foreboding.
“Their food and water supplies are cut and they now will not be able to sleep,” said Abdulmolah. “It’s a matter of time before they come to their senses, we hope to prevent some bloodshed.”
Holding the town would be a major rebel victory, boosting morale and recapturing infrastructure vital to Libya’s economic future.
But Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim insisted that Brega remained under the “full control” of loyalist forces.
“They tried to recapture the town but were repulsed losing 500 of their fighters in the battle,” Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli.
“Unfortunately the criminal (National Transitional) Council is sending young Libyans to their deaths and 520 of them have died on the frontline over the past four days.”
Ibrahim said 30 loyalist soldiers had also been killed in the fighting.
Brega is a major centre for channelling oil through the pipelines of the resource-rich Sirte Basin to the rest of the world.
Fighters on the ground said there were no signs yet of those oil installations being set on fire or sabotaged, but the area had been heavily mined.
On the approach to the front there were already signs of relief and celebration.
“Tonight we sleep in Brega!” cried 25-year-old Mufta Idris from a sand-smeared Toyota pick-up that was carrying him and four other members of the Hasan Jaber Brigade to the front.
In nearby Ajdabiya, where many of the 300 rebels wounded in the five days of fighting had been brought, there was a marked lull in activity at the local hospital.
Doctors stood chatting amicably in the hallway for the first time in days. The white marble floor that had been streaked with the blood of some 21 dead fighters had been washed clean.
There were no cries of pain from the operating theatre where doctors had tended severe shrapnel wounds without morphine.
The battle had begun around four hours before sunset on Thursday, when the largely volunteer rebel army launched a bold three-pronged attack that belied their inexperience of military tactics.
They had hoped months of waiting and training would arrest a bloody to-and-fro that had seen Brega change hands several times since the revolution began five months ago.
The rebels appeared to have learned the lessons from a series of hard-fought military gains that were washed away by hasty and badly coordinated advances.
This time rebel columns approached slowly from the northeast, east and southeast, surrounding Kadhafi’s forces and reaching the outskirts of the city’s eastern-most tip late on Friday.
Such is the new-found caution that even now the complete occupation of Brega may have to wait.
“Most of the troops going in right now are anti-mine teams,” said Abdulmolah. “We have found an extraordinary number of anti-personnel mines.”
He added that the effort to clear the ordnance is being hampered by missile attacks from the village of Bishr around 20 kilometres (13 miles) away.
The rebels hope that a phalanx of their fighters which swept past Brega from the south will soon take out those positions.
But the rebel victory is unlikely to bring a quick end to the war.
Southwest of Tripoli, Kadhafi’s forces continued to fire rockets at rebel positions in Gualish in the Nafusa Mountains and around Bir Ayad, a key junction on the road to Tripoli in the plains below, rebel commanders said.
The rebels responded with rocket fire against the loyalist-held hill town of Asabah, an AFP correspondent reported.
In talks in Pretoria British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to bridge the gap with South African President Jacob Zuma on the shape of a political settlement to the conflict.
But the two men remained far apart on whether Kadhafi should step down before talks begin, as the rebels and NATO demand, or only at the end of the process.
“We agree on the ultimate destination that Kadhafi must step aside to allow the people of Libya to decide their own future, Cameron said.
“The president believes that is the outcome of a political process. I believe for a political process to work, this has to be the starting point.”