Qaddafi's forces encircle last city before rebel capital

According to rebels, Qaddafi's forces now control two of the three exits from the city leading into rebel territory from Ajdabiya and are attacking densely populated civilian areas, including a hospital.

By , Staff writer

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    In this image taken during an organized trip by the Libyan authorities for a small group of journalists, Libyan soldiers loyal to Muammar Qaddafi's forces are seen on the western entrance of the city of Ajdabiya, Libya, pushing towards the front line on Wednesday, March 16.
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The rebel-held Libyan city of Ajdabiya has come under a withering rocket and warplane assault from Muammar Qaddafi’s forces as leaders of the stalled revolution continued to plead for an international no-fly zone. Mr. Qaddafi's son boasted that the revolt would soon be crushed.

According to rebel information, Qaddafi's forces appear to be encircling the city and attempting to squeeze the rebels inside – a strategy that is being bolstered by tanks on the ground and could significantly increase the civilian toll and cut off rebel supply lines.

In Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital 90 miles away, supporters of the uprising are afraid that their city of 1 million could well be next. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement today warning of an impending assault on Benghazi, and said such action “would massively place civilian lives at risk.”

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“We’re being killed, our families slaughtered,” says Zaid, a man who says he’s been advising the rebels on desert warfare and didn’t want his full name used. “The international community is just watching, like it usually does. Somalia, Palestine, Libya, it makes no difference to them.”

There were hints that all of this could prompt foreign countries, which have avoided direct action until now, to intervene. French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for the UN Security Council to declare a no-fly zone to protect the rebels, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied the US is not opposed to the use of force to stop Qaddafi.

“Many different actions are being considered, yes, a no-fly zone, but others as well to enable the protection of Libyan citizens against their own leader, who seems determined to turn the clock back and kill as many of them as possible,” she told reporters in Cairo.

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the dictator's eldest son who acts as a regime mouthpiece, sought to project an aura of inevitable victory for his father. He told the Euronews television channel today that "in 48 hours everything will be over. Whatever decision is taken [by the international community], it will be too late."

He also said Qaddafi's military was "close to Benghazi." There were no signs of Qaddafi's forces on the ground anywhere near Benghazi today, however.

Two main entrances to city in Qaddafi's hands

In the past week, Qaddafi has subjected the western towns of Misratah and Zawiyah to tank and mortar fire, killing dozens of civilians along with rebel fighters. In addition, Qaddafi shelled Misratah repeatedly today, leaving 11 dead.

Now Qaddafi seems to be applying a similar combination of tactics to Ajdabiya, a city of about 100,000.

Yesterday, his rockets and planes pounded rebel positions to the west of the city for hours. By late afternoon, Qaddafi moved in ground troops and tanks, witnesses said. Residents said the power was cut last night and was still off as of early evening today.

Overnight, rebels managed to counterattack, and their spokesmen said they held the center of the city today.

Rebel fighters at Zueitina, a small oil-refining town about six miles east of Ajdabiya along the main road to Benghazi, said Qaddafi had fighters between them and the entrance to town, and at the main crossroads leading to the town from the west. A third artery linking Ajdabiya to Tobruk in Libya’s far east was in rebel hands, they said.

Growing civilian toll

Meanwhile, there are growing indications of a civilian toll in Ajdabiya, though reports from rebels could not be independently confirmed.

Three men who fought in the city yesterday said Qaddafi’s soldiers were in the center of town by the late afternoon. Hemdi Labeidi, a thick-bodied fighter, said he saw two rockets strike the town’s hospital, destroying a water tank on the grounds and damaging an outside wall.

Shortly before 5 p.m. yesterday, he says a convoy of three ambulances seeking to take the badly wounded to Benghazi were turned back by Qaddafi’s fighters less than a mile toward Benghazi from the hospital, who fired warning shots over their roofs. Shortly before then, he also saw three men he took to be foreign reporters fleeing the area on foot, amid chaotic fighting.

The New York Times reported today that four of its journalists went missing in Ajdabiya late Tuesday afternoon, including veteran Arab world correspondent Anthony Shadid.

Labeidi says he was also on the city's Istamboul Street shortly after two civilian homes were destroyed by rocket fire, and he helped survivors get to the hospital. Ibrahim Abu Baker, an unemployed young man from Ajdabiya, says he saw tanks of Qaddafi’s destroy houses in the 7th of October neighborhood on the east side of town yesterday.

'I didn't even get to fire my RPG'

Miftah Shuwey, a grocer turned revolutionary fighter, was one of the few to escape with his life as Qaddafi’s forces overran a rebel checkpoint about 1 mile to the west of town yesterday.

He was in the last of a group of three cars when they spotted pickup trucks speeding toward Ajdabiya that he and his companions took to be revolutionaries fleeing from further west.

But when they got close enough, men in the flatbeds opened up with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, striking the first two cars and likely killing all seven men inside. His car wasn’t hit and he and his two companions fled, abandoning the car and dodging into a nearby home shortly before an RPG broadsided it.

A man in the house sheltered them for a short while, and then arranged transport for them out of the city. Today, he’s in a Benghazi hospital bed with a leg-wound but is alert, and says he wants to fight as soon as he can. “It all happened so fast, I didn’t even get a chance to fire my RPG.”

Rebels forbid reporters from entering city

Yesterday, dozens of families fled Ajdabiya for the relative safety of the east, though Qaddafi’s planes dropped three bombs this morning at a largely abandoned military airport on the outskirts of Benghazi.

Today, the road leading toward Benghazi on the outskirts of Ajdabiya was unusually quiet, except for the occasional rumble of rocket salvos fired into town, the passing of ammunition trucks to the front, and the complaints of journalists to militiamen.

The militiamen have clamped down on the movement of reporters in the past few days, saying they’re acting under orders. Today, reporters were stopped at Zueitina. Militiamen said they couldn’t allow them to pass toward Ajdabiya for their own protection and, they said, to prevent them from giving information away to Qaddafi’s men.

“I’m under strict orders, and if I let you through I’ll get in trouble,” apologized one. Frustrating for reporters, but also a rare sign of command and control from the rebel side.

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