By Chris McGreal in Bin Jawad and agencies
Gaddafi's forces ousted with help from international air strikes as regime accuses coalition of trying to push Libya into civil war
Libyan rebels have entered the key oil town of Ras Lanuf after routing Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Brega with help from UN-backed air strikes that tipped the balance away from the military.
Brega, the main oil export terminal in eastern Libya, fell after a skirmish late on Saturday, and rebels continued their push westwards to Ras Lanuf and its large oil refinery. "There is no Gaddafi army in Ras Lanuf," said Walid al-Arabi, a rebel fighter.
The advance continued today as rebels took control of the town of Bin Jawad and said they planned to push on towards Gaddafi's stronghold of Sirte. More than two dozen rebel trucks were seen going into the town centre, Reuters reported. The rebels now have regained control of the major oil terminals in the east of the country.
The Gaddafi regime acknowledged that air strikes had forced its troops to retreat and accused international forces of choosing sides. "This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," said the deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."
The town of Ajdabiya fell on Friday night, the Libyan revolutionaries' first significant victory over Gaddafi's forces since the coalition air strikes began a week ago. "We hit them with our rockets and RPGs," said Mohammed Rahim, a former regular soldier wearing a makeshift uniform of blue camouflage jacket and green trousers. "The fighting went on all night. It was a big battle. All the fighters came from Benghazi for it."
The destruction of tanks on the edge of the town suggested it was the air strikes that had broken the back of strong resistance by army forces before the rebels moved in. Six wrecked tanks marked the road into Ajdabiya and ammunition littered the ground. Guns left intact were hauled away by the rebels for the next battle.
On the other side of town abandoned piles of weapons and ammunition, including Russian-made tank shells and rocket-propelled grenades, suggested Gaddafi's forces had left in a hurry. The rebels arrived with transporters to remove the armour to add to an expanding revolutionary tank force that has yet to see action.
Corpses of Gaddafi's fighters lay among some of the clusters of weaponry, but around others there was no sign of bodies, perhaps further evidence that fighters had fled from their tanks in fear of the air strikes.
One of the rebel fighters, Mansour Mahdy, acknowledged that the battle would not have been won without foreign planes. "We are very grateful to the west. Everyone wants to thank France. Was it France this time? Or America? We thank them all," he said.
Days of air strikes were carried out by both countries, alongside British aircraft, ostensibly to protect civilians. As word spread that the fighting in Ajdabiya was over, residents began to return in hundreds of cars .
The few among the town's 130,000 people who endured the siege were relieved but stunned. Some gave accounts of Gaddafi's security men hunting down rebel sympathisers when they occupied the town. One man said he was looking for his brother and feared he had been executed or taken to prison in Tripoli.
Other residents said they had not been badly treated and that, after the initial street battles and occasional shelling, the hardest part had been to endure a town with no electricity or water and dwindling food supplies. The local hospital closed after most of the staff fled because they feared they would be targeted by Gaddafi's forces after some doctors publicly sided with the rebels.
One elderly man did not seem to view it as liberation. He said he feared the fighting would return. He did not seem entirely trustful of the rebels either. "We never had this before, all these men with guns. This was a peaceful town. Now everyone has run away. We did not ask for this," he said.
The revolutionaries have been able to move swiftly along the coastal road to retake Brega and Ras Lanuf thanks to the Nato coalition's air supremacy, but moving on to the larger and more politically important town of Sirte may prove to be a challenge too far.
Sirte is Gaddafi's birthplace and he once proposed making it Libya's capital. He is likely to reinforce the town because its fall would be a devastating blow.
A rebel assault on Sirte would also raise a dilemma for Nato and the coalition leading the air strikes. The UN resolution permits military action in defence of civilians. Until now, it has been Gaddafi's forces threatening rebel-held cities such as Benghazi, Misrata and Ajdabiya. But a rebel assault on Sirte would present the question of whether the coalition is prepared to launch air strikes to help take a town that has not risen up against Gaddafi. If not, it appears unlikely the rebels will be able to overcome the regime's defences on their own.
Alternatively, if Gaddafi's forces make a stand in the desert, where no civilians are threatened, that would also present the coalition forces with difficulty in justifying air strikes in support of the rebels. The revolutionary leadership had not expected Gaddafi's forces to hold out for as long as they did at Ajdabiya, a sign that they are not entirely deterred from fighting by the air strikes.
In The Guardian
Sunday, 27 March 2011
Posted by MANUEL DE ARAÚJO at Sunday, March 27, 2011