BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed further west on Sunday to retake more territory abandoned by Muammar Gaddafi’s retreating forces, which have been weakened by Western air strikes.
Emboldened by the capture of the strategic town of Ajdabiyah with the help of foreign warplanes on Saturday, the rebels have regained the initiative and are back in control of all the main oil terminals in the eastern half of the North African country.
“There are no Gaddafi soldiers here. We control all the town,” rebel fighter Youssef Ahmed, 22, said in the town of Bin Jawad, 525 km (330 miles) east of the capital Tripoli.
A Reuters correspondent in Bin Jawad saw more than two dozen rebel pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns in the town center, as fighters were shooting in the air in celebration.
Bin Jawad is the westernmost point the rebels reached in early March, before they were pushed back by Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces to their stronghold of Benghazi.
Rebels said Gaddafi loyalists had retreated westwards and that they planned to push on toward Sirte, the Libyan leader’s heavily defended home area on the Mediterranean coast.
“We want to go to Sirte today. I don’t know if it will happen,” said 25-year-old Marjai Agouri as he waited with another 100 rebels along the main coastal road outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
The rebel advance is a rapid reversal of three weeks of losses and indicates Western air strikes under by a U.N. no-fly zone are shifting the battlefield dynamics in their favor.
Their gains put the rebels back in control of all the main oil terminals in the eastern half of Libya — Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk.
In Ras Lanuf, battle debris was scattered around the eastern gate, which had been hit by an air strike.
At least three trucks of Gaddafi’s forces were smouldering. Ammunition, plastic bags of rations left behind and a tin bowl with a half eaten meal on the ground suggested Gaddafi’s forces had beaten a hasty retreat.
Mansour al-Breik, a 20-year-old shopkeeper now turned fighter, said: “The air strikes were from midnight to 3 a.m.”
REBELS TAKE PRISONERS
On the way into Ras Lanuf a Reuters correspondent saw a bus loaded with Gaddafi soldiers who had been taken prisoner, escorted by a machinegun-mounted pickup.
As foreign media passed, rebels chanted: “Sarkozy, Sarkozy, Sarkozy” in reference to the French president and air strikes by coalition states including France aimed at protecting civilians.
As the front line shifted toward the heartland of Gaddafi’s support, government forces pounded Misrata in the west with tank, mortar and artillery fire on Saturday, and resumed shelling on Sunday after a pause that followed an air strike.
“Misrata is under attack, the city and the port area where thousands of workers are. We don’t know whether it’s artillery or mortars,” the resident, called Saadoun, told Reuters by telephone from the city on Sunday.
A Misrata resident told Reuters by phone the humanitarian situation in the city was very bad, but that rebels had said they would fight until the city was freed from Gaddafi.
“Misrata has been under siege for 38 days,” another resident, Sami, said by telephone. “Not much food, water is a rarity and people are obliged to use wells to get water. We have problems with medicines.”
A rebel in Misrata told Reuters Gaddafi was putting all his weight into attacking Misrata so he could control the whole of the west of the country after losing all the east.
Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in the capital Tripoli that Gaddafi was directing his forces but appeared to suggest the leader might be moving around the country so as to keep his whereabouts a mystery.
“He is leading the battle. He is leading the nation forward from anywhere in the country,” said Ibrahim.
“He has many offices, many places around Libya. I assure you he is leading the nation at this very moment and he is in continuous communication with everyone around the country.”
Asked if Gaddafi was constantly on the move, Ibrahim said: “It’s a time of war. In a time of war you act differently.”
Capturing Ajdabiyah was a big morale boost for rebels a week after air strikes began to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone.
“This is a victory from God,” said Ali Mohamed, a 53-year-old teacher in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“Insha’allah (God willing), we will be victorious. After two days, we will be in Tripoli,” he said.
Fouzi Dihoum, a catering company employee, said the rebels could push forward because the area between Ajdabiyah and Sirte was desert where Gaddafi forces were easy targets for planes.
“There is nowhere to hide. It’s an open area.”
Libyan state television was on Sunday broadcasting pop songs and images of palm trees, wheatfields and vast construction projects completed in Gaddafi’s four decades in power.
Gaddafi himself has not been shown on television since he made a speech on Wednesday and his sons Saif al-Islam and Khamis — who earlier in the conflict spoke regularly to foreign media — have been out of sight even longer.
Internet social networks and some Arabic-language media have reported that Khamis, commander of the elite 32nd brigade, was killed by a disaffected air force pilot who, according to the reports, flew his plane into the Gaddafi compound in Tripoli.
There has been no confirmation and Libyan officials say such reports are part of a deliberate campaign of misinformation.
Last week Libyan officials said nearly 100 civilians had been killed in coalition strikes, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the assertion.
NATO ambassadors were to meet on Sunday to discuss plans for broadening the alliance mandate to take full command of military operations, including attacks on ground targets.