Libyan rebels take back key town of Ajdabiya

Libyan rebels retook the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya on Saturday in the biggest indication yet that a week of coalition airstrikes is working to erode the military capabilities of forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

Government forces retreated from the city, 530 miles east of Tripoli, early in the morning after a fierce overnight battle and a seventh straight night of coalition attacks against Gaddafi loyalist positions.

Al-Jazeera English showed footage of rebels dancing on tanks and celebrating after the soldiers pulled out. Reuters news service reported that the bodies of more than a dozen of Gaddafi’s soldiers were strewed around the town’s western entrance, where the fighting was fiercest. A truckload of ammunition had been abandoned, and shell casings lay scattered on the ground.

In Tripoli, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim confirmed that Libyan forces had retreated from the city and called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to address Libyan complaints that the air assault by U.S., British and French warplanes exceeds the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians.

“Their direct role in the fighting has become clear,” he said. “It’s outside the mandate. What they are trying to do is push the country to civil war.”

The capture of Ajdabiya provides a major boost to the rebel force, which had set out to march on Tripoli more than three weeks ago but was forced into a humiliating retreat when the better-equipped Libyan army launched a counteroffensive. Libyan forces seemed on the verge of capturing the rebel capital of Benghazi when the U.N.-mandated air campaign was launched by U.S., British and French warplanes last Saturday.

But Libyan forces continued to attack rebel forces Saturday in the contested town of Misurata, 130 miles east of Tripoli, where Libyan tanks were indiscriminately shelling neighborhoods in the city center, according to a rebel spokesman who identified himself as Mohammed.

Misurata has been besieged by Libyan forces since rebels seized it in a popular uprising in late February. But coalition airstrikes on Gaddafi positions on the outskirts of the city have now forced the Libyan army to move deeper into the center, where they are protected by the presence of civilians, the spokesman said.

“Maybe the coalition attacks have helped us in some way, but they have forced all the army of Gaddafi to enter inside the city, and now they have no choice but to stay in the city and die,” he said. The loyalist forces have taken control of the main road running through the city and have set up mortar positions in high buildings, he said.

Rebels have given the coordinates of loyalist positions within the city to rebel headquarters in Benghazi, which has passed them on to the NATO-led coalition, Mohammed said. “But the coalition says no, they can’t strike in the city because they are afraid they will hit civilians,” he said.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.

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