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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.

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Instead, they seem to have been driven from town by the same stand-off weapons Qaddafi has used with such success along the desert road between Ajdabiya and Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown about 150 miles west.

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Al Jazeera reports today that the Tripoli-based 32nd brigade, commanded by Qaddafi’s son Khamis, has sent some of its units east to join the fight. The brigade, probably the best-equipped force in Libya, has been largely involved in fighting in towns like Misrata and Zawiyah close to Tripoli.

Ajdabiya – a crucial crossroads

From Ajdabiya west along the coast, there is only one real road until reaching Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte – a pro-government stronghold about 150 miles away. But east from Ajdabiya, the road network branches out, with a good highway running straight through the desert to Tobruk, and secondary roads that could help Qaddafi’s forces avoid being bottlenecked.

Some fear that Benghazi could be effectively encircled. Though it has a deep-water port, the city’s power supply relies on a gas pipeline that runs from Brega that Qaddafi might chose to shut down.

Talking to senior members of free Libya’s civilian militia, it’s hard to know sometimes if they’re fooling themselves about the strength of their own position.

Yesterday, multiple rebel commanders in Ajdabiya insisted they’d retaken Brega, a key petrochemicals complex about 50 miles west, though they admitted there was some fighting as they went house to house looking for members of Qaddafi’s forces.

But late last night, an aide in the civilian government in Benghazi said the commanders were overstating the rebel’s position in Brega. “I think the best way to put it is that Brega is in nobody’s hands,” he said, asking not to be named. This morning, Qaddafi was peppering the outside of town with rocket fire using rockets with a range of about 20 miles.

Rebels arrest Qaddafi's secret police, special forces

The rebels insist they have laid plans to stop Qaddafi’s men. They say they have teams ready to disrupt Qaddafi's supply lines if his forces race east. And in recent days they’ve begun detaining members of Qaddafi’s secret police who remained in Ajdabiya and Benghazi after rebels seized control in February, as well as some special forces units they say have been infiltrating into the area.

Mohammed al-Majbouli, a rebel commander in Ajdabiya, claimed yesterday that dozens of Qaddafi soldiers have been arrested in and around the city in recent days. At a command post in town in what’s usually an elementary school, a handful of Qaddafi soldiers were in custody.

Mr. Majbouli also says that on Sunday he personally oversaw the arrest of four men who confessed to Saturday's murder of Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber outside Benghazi. Majbouli said the men were from the 32nd Brigade and that they’d infiltrated into the east posing as rebels.

He said they were sleeping in a white, late-model Toyota pickup decorated with the large, independence-era flag that the rebels have adopted as their own (Qaddafi replaced that flag with one of his own design) and that they had five guns between them. But his account also had odd details, such as saying that two of the guns captured with the men had “poison” bullets in them.

Rebel officials in Benghazi said they’d heard nothing about the arrests of Mr. Jaber’s killers.

Still, the rebel militias are clearly rounding up Qaddafi supporters they worry could emerge from hiding or commit acts of sabotage. “Yes I can confirm arrests are happening,” says one civilian aide to the rebel government in Benghazi. “We have to prepare for a possible attack. It doesn’t look like the international community will help us, so we need to be ready.”

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