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Rocket fire rains on crucial Libya town as Qaddafi's forces advance

Rebels fled from the eastern Libya town of Ajdabiya, seen as key to the success of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, as it came under a heavy air assault today.

By Staff writer / March 15, 2011

Rebel fighters and civilians flee from Ajdabiyah, on the road to Benghazi on March 15. Libyan state television said on Tuesday that forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi had cleared rebels out of the eastern town of Ajdabiyah, which was heavily bombarded before government troops moved in.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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Ajdabiya and Benghazi, Libya

Muammar Qaddafi’s forces started a sustained aerial barrage on the eastern Libyan town of Ajdabiya today, sparking a panicked retreat of rebel militiamen and civilian families from a city that rebel leaders had insisted was their line in the sand.

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Rocket fire and air strikes repeatedly hit the densely packed town of 100,000. “The rockets destroyed two houses on my block,” says an Ajdabiya resident by phone. “Some of my neighbors must have died. The international community has sold us to Qaddafi.”

Dozens of rebel cars and pickup trucks withdrew from a town that yesterday they were insisting they’d fight desperately to hold, since just east of it is a network of roads that act as a gateway to liberated eastern Libya. “We have to hold on here,” Saheer al-Saidi, a militiaman at a rebel command post inside town, said yesterday. “Qaddafi will be arresting and killing thousands if we lose.”

In the early evening, rebel leaders claimed they still had forces inside the city and residents said there were no signs of combat. Members of uprising's national council in Benghazi said that Ajdabiya had not fallen, though they've provided inaccurate reports about the situation in other towns in the past.

Meanwhile, the international community remains undecided over imposing a no-fly zone over eastern Libya. A G8 meeting in Paris yesterday ended with no agreement on intervening even as Mr. Qaddafi’s ground-based weapons advanced within striking distance of a major eastern population center.

Tough talk meets reality

The rebel bravado appears to have butted up against the hard reality of a foe with overwhelmingly superior weapons.

“There are only two possibilities: Surrender or run away," Qaddafi told Italy’s Il Giornale newspaper. His forces dropped leaflets yesterday on Ajdabiya that said much the same, promising the city “would soon be cleansed of armed gangs … we’re coming.”

About 90 miles east of Ajdabiya in the rebel headquarters of Benghazi, the latest setbacks have spread panic among the 1 million residents. Some officials in the interim rebel government are making arrangements for their families to leave the country.

Still, Libyan rebel leaders and militia commanders say they have started arresting forces loyal to Qaddafi in eastern Libya and are preparing a defense of Benghazi – much as they said they were preparing a defense of Ajdabiya.

Qaddafi forces enter Ajdabiya

Yesterday afternoon, senior rebel generals – defectors from Qaddafi’s forces – held a conclave in Ajdabiya, and their aides insisted that not only were plans being drawn up to defend the city, but that they were in the midst of a successful counterattack at Brega, about 50 miles west.

This morning, rocket fire, tank fire, and warplanes assaulted a rebel strongpoint on the highway linking Ajdabiya to Brega, and the rebels withdrew into the city. That wasn’t surprising. But the rebel militia – most of whom were students, or bakers, or unemployed a month ago – promised tough urban combat in defense of the population center.

Then this afternoon, one witness said he saw Qaddafi troops in the town itself. The battle for Ajdabiya appears to have ended before it really began, though reports from the town are still confused and uncertain. Some rebel units may still be hiding in the town, for instance.

But for now, the situation looks grim. Rebels yesterday were insisting that taking a town like Ajdabiya would require a commitment of ground forces from Qaddafi that they would oppose.

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