BENGHAZI - NATO airstrikes destroyed tanks belonging to forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi at the western gate of Ajdabiya on Sunday, as rebels reestablished control of the strategic eastern city.
Rockets still landed inside the nearly deserted city on Sunday but a military official with the rebel council said they had complete control by Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, members of the Transitional National Council, which governs the rebel-held east, met with Western diplomats in the temporary opposition capital of Benghazi. Officials said they discussed the role of NATO, which has come under severe criticism for not striking Gaddafi forces early enough to avert a humanitarian crisis or advances by Gaddafi’s forces.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi stormed the rebel stronghold Ajdabiya on Saturday for the first time since coalition airstrikes began last month, moving the front line closer to Benghazi.
Gaddafi forces approached Ajdabiya from the south and from the coast, and fierce street battles erupted in the heart of the city, 100 miles south of Benghazi. The loyalists also pummeled the western gate to Ajdabiya with mortar shells and artillery rounds for a third straight day.
Some rebels fled the city during the afternoon. But by nightfall Saturday, opposition forces said they had pushed most of the loyalists out of town and captured at least three, including a high-ranking officer. Sporadic street fighting continued into the night.
But the battle showed that the ragtag rebel army of the east remains in disarray as Gaddafi’s forces gain ground and adapt to NATO airstrikes. Since NATO took control of the skies from coalition forces — who struck last month to stop Gaddafi’s forces from overrunning the east — the front line has crept slowly toward Benghazi, where the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.
Gaddafi’s forces have adapted to the new environment by driving civilian vehicles and dressing like the rebels to avoid airstrikes. In some cases they’ve placed tanks in the center of civilian populations to stop NATO from striking.
“What used to be a target-rich environment is now a target-poor environment,” said one Western diplomat emerging from a meeting in Benghazi on Sunday.
The diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said there were no discussions of ground troops entering LIbya and that the council understood the difficulties NATO faces. He said it would take only one “catastrophic” bombing that killed civilians to “undermine” the NATO mission. He called the rebel uprising “pure” and said he was “hopeful” they would succeed.
“I only see this going one way,” he said referring to Gaddafi’s ouster. “It’s only a matter of when.”