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Libya test for NATO starts at Ajdabiya

British warplanes bombarded Qadaffi's forces around Ajdabiya overnight Thursday, emboldening rebels who may attempt to take the city and gain ground in Libya.

By Staff writer / March 25, 2011

Libyan men attend Friday prayers in the main square in Benghazi, eastern Libya, Friday, March 25. The city saw many casualties during recent fighting in and around the city of Ajdabiya, where rebels clash now for weeks with troops of Muammar Qaddafi.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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Benghazi, Libya

Libya’s uprising and the eastern enclaves that wrenched themselves free of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule in February may have been saved by international action six days ago.

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Yet many Libyan cities remain under siege. The western town of Misurata, ringed by Mr. Qaddafi’s tanks and ground forces, has lost more than 100 residents in the past week, according to the hospital there. Other towns in the west where residents rose up against Qaddafi’s 41-year reign remain gripped by fear.

Now, in Ajdabiya, the first real test is unfolding of whether Libya’s rebels can gain ground under a cloak of international air support.

The town 90 miles west of Benghazi, the rebel capital, has been without electricity for almost two weeks, following a fierce battle between lightly armed rebels and Qaddafi’s better-trained and equipped forces. Qaddafi's troops had Ajdabiya surrounded this time a week ago.

Since then, French and British warplanes have repeatedly hit Qaddafi’s tanks, missile launchers, and resupply trucks on the desert roads around the city, allowing the rebel militia and some of the roughly 1,000 trained soldiers, which rebel leaders claim they have under their command, to creep within about five miles of the town.

French and British bombardment

Overnight Thursday, British Tornadoes fired Brimstone missiles at the remaining Qaddafi forces around the city. UK Defense Secretary Liam Fox said the missiles targeted “Libyan armored vehicles, which were threatening the civilian population of Ajdabiya.”

That focus on protecting the “civilian population” is to remain in compliance of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which does not authorize overt support for the rebellion.

But in Benghazi and among the rebel militia around Ajdabiya, there’s an insistence that foreign air support has made retaking the town a near certainty. “We expect Ajdabiya will be liberated today or tomorrow," Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebellion, told reporters today.

Ajdabiya, home to about 100,000, is perched on the edge of a 300-mile stretch of lightly populated desert that’s bounded in the west by Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and a hotbed of support for Libya’s self-styled “king of kings.”

Advancing on Sirte appears to be orders of magnitude more difficult than ousting Qaddafi’s forces from Ajdabiya, where they’ve been almost entirely without outside resupply or reinforcements since French warplane destroyed dozens of the regimes vehicles near the city last Saturday.

Building a rebel army

Rebel leaders say they’re seeking to build a proper army from the ground up that will slowly squeeze Qaddafi from the inside while financial sanctions start to bite from the outside.

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