Libyan rebels recapture key town as embattled Gaddafi troops take flight

Photo | AFP
Libyan rebels pray on the road to Ajdabiya on Thursday. They recaptured the strategic eastern oil town from troops loyal to strongman Muammar Gaddafi on March 26, 2011.

What you need to know:

  • Obama says coalition move saved citizens with anti-regime fighters telling outside forces they can leave

Benghazi, Saturday

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were in retreat today after rebels re-captured the key eastern town of Ajdabiya in their first significant victory since the launch of the Western-led air strikes a week ago.

US President Barack Obama said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a “bloodbath” threatened by Gaddafi and the rebels thanked France for its role in the military blitz but said “outside forces” could now leave the country.

However, Russia’s top general called the air strikes unsuccessful and said a ground operation would likely be needed to topple the Libyan strongman.

Ajdabiya was “100 per cent in the hands of our forces, and we are pursuing Gaddafi’s forces on the road to Brega,” 80 kilometres further west, a rebel spokesman, Shamsiddin Abdulmollah, told reporters in the stronghold of Benghazi.

“Who is on the back foot are Gaddafi’s forces because they no longer have air power and heavy weaponry available” after a week of bombing by coalition warplanes, he said.

Prisoners of war

Another spokesman, Ahmed Khalifa, said the rebels had taken at least 13 Gaddafi fighters who were being treated as prisoners of war.

The rebels, backed by the Western barrage, had poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.

The bodies of at least two pro-Gaddafi fighters lay on the ground, surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing shots into the air and shouting “God is greater.”

Outside the town, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP on Saturday.

Osama al-Qasy from Benghazi’s Hawari hospital said the bodies were found 10 kilometres west of Ajdabiyan. Other charred corpses remained in the desert, covered by blankets.

Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes. They were accused by residents of brutalising the population.

Resident Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP: “The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop. 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.

Ajdabiya, which straddles the key road to Benghazi, is the first town to fall back into rebel hands since a coalition of Western forces launched UN-backed air strikes on March 19 to stop forces loyal to Gaddafi attacking civilians.

But in Libya’s west, where the capital Tripoli and most of Gaddafi’s support is located, the port city of Misrata was in dire need of outside help from coalition jets and humanitarian groups because of attacks by Gaddafi forces, the rebels said.

“Please, do something about Misrata,” one member of the rebellion, Mustafa Gheriani, pleaded.

Abdulmollah said he believed a floating hospital organised by non-governmental organisations was on its way to Misrata under Nato escort from Malta.

Elsewhere, huge explosions shook a military site in an eastern suburb of Tripoli early Saturday as Western forces piled pressure on the regime with an aerial barrage.

The blasts left a radar facility in flames in Tajura, home to several military bases, a witness told AFP.

“The district was shaken by three explosions in succession,” the resident said, adding that the explosions had shattered windows.

Military radar site

“The raid targeted a military radar site which is still on fire,” the resident, who lives close by, added.

Under pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, President Obama gave his most detailed review of the conflict so far, and insisted national interests were behind his decision to order US forces into UN-mandated combat.

“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 his weekly radio and online address.

The president said a week into the operation that when innocent people were brutalized, by a leader like Gaddafi threatening a “bloodbath” and when nations were prepared to respond together “it’s in our national interest to act.”

“We’re succeeding in our mission. We’ve taken out Libya’s air defenses. Gaddafi’s forces are no longer advancing across Libya.”

The Libyan opposition’s interim national council leader Mahmoud Jibril said his people no longer needed outside help, in a letter addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, published by the daily Le Figaro.

“In the middle of the night, your planes destroyed tanks that were set to crush Benghazi. ... The Libyan people see you as liberators. Its recognition will be eternal,” he wrote.

However, Jibril added: “We do not want outside forces. We won’t need them. We will win the first battle thanks to you. We will win the next battle through our own means.” (AFP)


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