In Libya, Gaddafi's tanks split rebel forces

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 5:47 PM

ZUWAYTINAH, LIBYA - Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on Wednesday positioned tanks for the first time along the main road connecting the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, effectively splitting the forces opposing Gaddafi in two, according to rebel commanders, fighters and witnesses.

Gaddafi's troops coming from the west had blocked parts of Ajdabiya and were now barring entry from the northeast, they said. Rebel forces remained inside the city and had engaged in fierce fighting with Gaddafi loyalists who stormed the city on Tuesday before withdrawing to the outskirts.

Ajdabiya, a city of 170,000 people, is the last line of defense before Benghazi, the cradle of the populist uprising that seeks to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

"They started at the western gate to the city, then encircled Ajdabiya and arrived at the eastern gate," said Zaid Al-Libi, who described himself as a military advisor and used a nom de guerre. "Gaddafi's forces are now near the eastern gate."

Other fighters on this front line, about 10 miles away from Ajdabiya, confirmed his assessment on Wednesday afternoon. "A few of their tanks are down the road," said Yahya el Mugasabi, a fighter who arrived from the direction of Ajdabiya. "We've been firing a lot of weapons at each other."

Along the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, the rebels appear to be preparing for a possible offensive by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi. Three rebel tanks, each roughly a mile apart, were parked along the road, their turrets pointed in the direction of Ajdabiya. Rebel fighters congregated at towns along the way, some waiting for orders, others headed back to Benghazi or returning towards the front line in Zuwaytinah and beyond.

In interviews, many said they were prepared to fight hard to prevent Gaddafi's forces from seizing Ajdabiya.

"Tonight, we will fight them inside the city," predicted Al-Libi.

In the distance, the heavy thuds of bombardment could be heard. Civilians and fighters said Gaddafi's forcer had barraged Ajdabiya with artillery and rockets on Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday morning. Gaddafi's forces appeared to deploying similar tactics they had used to capture other rebel-held towns such as Zawiyah: A combination of shelling and staging raids into urban areas, engaging in firefights, then retreating to the outskirts of the town at night.

Hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, fled Ajdabiya Tuesday with whatever they could carry.

Libyan state television asserted that Ajdabiya had "been cleansed of mercenaries and terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda organization," referring to the rebels.

The assault on Tuesday was the latest sign that the forces that have fueled the Arab spring over the past few weeks are coming under pressure that might prove insurmountable. In Bahrain, the government has declared a state of emergency and invited Saudi troops to quell unrest. In Yemen, police fired bullets and tear gas at protesters on Sunday, a day after security forces killed seven demonstrators in protests across the country.

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