Libyan rebels fleeing 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
AJDABIYAH, Libya - Muammar Gaddafi's forces seized two strategic towns in eastern Libya on Tuesday, forcing rebel fighters to beat a hasty retreat and opening up the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi.
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The junction town of Ajdabiyah fell after a heavy bombardment by ground forces that sent civilians streaming down the road towards safer territory. The oil port of Brega was taken after a morning of see-saw fighting.
Libyan state television said Gaddafi's forces were now "in total
control" of Ajdabiyah and a Reuters correspondent saw rebel forces
pulling out of the town in convoys.
Government jets had opened up with rocket fire on the checkpoint at the
western entrance to Ajdabiyah on Tuesday morning, then unleashed an
artillery bombardment on the position and a nearby arms dump.
At least one missile hit a residential area. Residents piled into cars
and pickups to flee town on highways leading towards Benghazi or Tobruk,
which are still in rebel hands.
The same pattern of attack has pushed back rebels more than 100 miles (160 km) in a week-long counter-offensive.
Ajdabiyah was all that stood between the eastward advance of Libyan
government troops and the second city of Benghazi and lies on a road
junction from where Gaddafi's forces could attempt to encircle the rebel
Tuesday afternoon, Libyan state television said that the town had been completely cleared of rebel forces.
A rebel in Ajdabiyah told Reuters that Brega, 75 km (50 miles) to the southwest, had also fallen.
"We have lost Brega completely. We could not face Gaddafi's forces," said the rebel, who identified himself only as Nasser.
Fighters had earlier spoken of skirmishes throughout the city as each side fought to win control.
As well as the coastal road to Benghazi, there is also a 400 km (250
mile) desert road straight to Tobruk, near the Egyptian border that
would cut off Benghazi. But it was not clear whether Gaddafi's forces
were strong enough to be split and whether they could operate with such
long supply lines.
Al Jazeera television reported that elite army units commanded by
Gaddafi's sons were heading towards Brega, suggesting he wanted to
swiftly and emphatically crush the month-long insurrection against his
Gaddafi's forces have advanced steadily eastwards along the coast to
retake towns captured by rebels in the early days of the uprising.
The poorly equipped rebels have been outgunned by tanks, artillery and
warplanes and are now in danger of being pushed all the way back to
Benghazi, headquarters of their provisional national council.
Libyan state television has carried messages saying eastern towns and
cities would be or had been "liberated" from the hands of what it calls
"armed gangs" and terrorists inspired by al Qaeda. Since halting the
rebel advance, Gaddafi's forces have also recaptured the oil towns of Es
Sider and Ras Lanuf.