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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

Last updated on: March 27, 2011 00:29 IST

Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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Libyan rebels on Saturday regained control of the strategic oil town of Ajdabiya after a week-long airstrikes by western coalition crippled Muammar Gaddafi's forces, amid indication that the tide may be turning against the emabattled leader.

Large explosions were also heard in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Saturday morning. A military radar site was set on fire in that city's suburb of Tajura, according to witnesses. In a bid to force him to quit, the coalition has stepped up air raids on Gaddafi's tanks and artillery outside the eastern town of Ajdabiya, 160-km south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

British Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft have been firing Brimstone guided missiles at Gaddafi's forces massed around Ajdabiya, a town of about 100,000 people seen as the gateway to Benghazi and the oil town of Tobruk, the BBC reported. Rebel fighters were close to recapturing the oil port town of Brega, where Gaddafi forces have retreated, witnesses said.

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Image: A rebel mans an anti-aircraft gun in Ras Lanuf

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Amid the ruins of tanks and artillery pieces left behind after air strikes, Ajdabiya was "firmly back under the control of opposition fighters", Al Jazeera channel said. "There is no doubt about it, you can probably hear some of the celebrations behind me, Ajdabiya is   in opposition hands," the report from Ajdabiya said.

"The opposition forces tell me there may be some pro-Gaddafi forces hiding, snipers possibly on buildings, they are telling us to take care," the report said, adding some of Gaddafi's soldiers were also taken hostage by rebels.

Libyan government officials said that the army had withdrawn to save residents from more bloodshed. Rebel forces had earlier captured Ajdabiya during an advance along Libya's east coast. However, Gaddafi's forces backed by superior air power reversed the rebels' gains in a counter-offensive earlier this month.

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Image: A rebel fighter holds a RPG launcher in Benghazi
Photographs: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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But coalition airstrikes have tipped the balance back towards the rebels. In the fighting in Misrata forces loyal to Gaddafi shelled an area on the outskirts of the city, killing six people including three children, a rebel said.  Gaddafi forces are still trying to recapture Misrata,  the last major western Libyan town in rebel hands, and residents reported shelling continuing there late on Friday, the BBC reported.

The port city has experienced some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi since the uprising began on February 16. Meanwhile United States President Barack Obama has said the military mission in Libya is clear, focused and limited.

"Because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- have been saved," he said in a radio address on Saturday.

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Image: A rebel fighter reacts upon incoming shells fired by soldiers loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a battle in Ajdabiya
Photographs: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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Obama once again ruled out sending any American ground forces to the north African country and sought to project the campaign in Libya as a completely multi-lateral mission.

"We're succeeding in our mission. We've taken out Libya's air defences. Gaddafi's forces are no longer advancing across Libya. In places like Benghazi, a city of some 700,000 that Qaddafi threatened to show 'no mercy', his forces have been pushed back," Obama said.

Eight days into the military strikes in Libya, Obama underlined that there will not be any US ground forces in the operation. Meanwhile, the US said it is working with the Libyan opposition leaders on post-Gaddafi scenario.

"We are working in a variety of ways to reach out to the opposition in Libya, to advise them on what a post-Gaddafi Libya would best look like," White House press secretary, Jay Carney told reporters in Washington.

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Image: Rebel fighters pray before a battle on the road between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad
Photographs: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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Amid massive pounding by the coalition forces, Director of the Joint Staff Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said Gaddafi's troops continued to target and attack innocent civilians. "We don't want to go out and count tanks, the number of tank turrets that we see knocked off of tanks," Gortney said in Washington.

Gortney said the coalition forces in last 24 hours hit more command-and-control capabilities in and around Tripoli and launched 16 additional Tomahawks on pre-planned strikes against Scud garrisons in Tripoli and against more integrated air-defence systems down south in Sebha.

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Image: Rebel fighters take a break along the Benghazi-Ajdabiyah road, near Ajdabiya
Photographs: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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"We flew more than 153 missions (last 24 hours), 96 of which were strike-related. Slightly more than half of those strike missions were executed by US pilots," he said adding that the number of sorties have gone up at a rapid rate.

The top commander said the Gaddafi forces' ability to command and control and effectively employ their air defence "is almost nonexistent". The US said the regime was seeking possible mediators, interlocutors amid growing pressure on the embattled leader.

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Image: A woman rebel fighter supporter shoots an AK-47 rifle as she reacts to the news of the withdrawal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces from Benghazi
Photographs: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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"It's clear that the regime is reaching out to several possible mediators, interlocutors to try to get a message across," US ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz told mediapersons.  "I'm not exactly sure what the message is, but it clearly indicates, I think, at least some kind of desperation," Cretz said. "We haven't really been involved in those kind of discussions up until now".

Cretz said extending US recognition to the rebel umbrella group the Transitional National Council is an option under consideration.

"We are considering the issue of recognition, but it runs into several legal questions, several questions of international law, and there are other things that countries can do short of recognition at this particular point and it's not prevented us from doing the things that we need to do with respect to showing our very, very strong support for the Council," he said.

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Image: Rebels ride into the town of Ajdabiyah in eastern Libya
Photographs: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
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Libyan rebels take control of Ajdabiya, advance in Brega

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The US and its allies are considering arming the Libyan rebels. The allies are contemplating whether to supply arms to the opposition as their air strikes fail to dislodge government forces from around key contested towns, The Washington Post reported today quoting US and European officials.

France actively supports training and arming the rebels, and the Obama administration believes the United Nations resolution that authorised international intervention in Libya has the "flexibility" to allow such assistance, "if we thought that were the right way to go," Obama spokesman Carney was quoted as saying in the report. It was a "possibility," he added.

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Image: Rebels ride into the town of Ajdabiya
Photographs: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
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