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Libyan rebels celebrate victory in Ajdabiya

They acknowledge that Western airstrikes on Libya were crucial to turning the tide in the eastern city. But even with such support, how far they can advance toward Tripoli is uncertain.

By Staff writer / March 26, 2011

Rebel fighters celebrate on Saturday in the Ajdabiya in Libya after allied airstrikes helped drive Qaddafi's forces from the city.

AP

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Ajdabiya, Libya

Ecstatic rebels and residents of Ajdabiya, the eastern Libyan city that's been under siege for the past two weeks, poured out into the streets today firing guns wildly into the air and celebrating a stunning reversal in fortune.

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“This is our victory, we did this,” says Abdul Hamid Zwei, an Ajdabiya native snuck back into town from Tripoli two weeks ago to participate in the rebels' defense of the city. “But there’s no way we’d be celebrating today if not for all of Qaddafi’s tanks and vehicles being destroyed from the air.”

Indeed, the panicked withdrawal of Muammar Qaddafi’s troops from town around dawn this morning marks the first major military victory for the rebellion and owes much to the resolve of the uprising’s young militia. But what really turned the tide here was the massive, sustained air campaign mounted by Britain, France, and the US in the past week.

While the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the action says the air campaign is only to protect civilians, its implementation is giving the rebellion their best chance of marching on Qaddafi’s strongholds in the west.

Devastatingly precise air strikes

Huge stockpiles of ammunition lie jumbled by the road leading west. Around town are the remains of over 20 tracked military vehicles – tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery guns.

Charred turrets 20 feet away from the tanks they were once attached to are evidence of precision strikes in recent days by British Tornadoes. Some of the men who crewed them were caught inside. Abandoned military uniforms here and there are momentos of frightened men who fled to avoid a similar fate.

On a small rise on the northern approach to town from Benghazi, the rebel capital, the destroyed armor appeared to have been deployed in defensive positions, a measure of the expansive interpretation of “protecting civilians” the international coalition has been using here.

Mr. Zwei isn’t complaining. Over the past two weeks, he says, snipers shot randomly at citizens on the streets and shelling from tankers off the coast fitted with grad missiles hit neighborhoods unpredictably. A whole family on his street was taken away by Qaddafi’s forces and has not been heard from again, he adds.

Less damage than expected

During the stand-off with Qaddafi's forces, small bands of young rebels continued to set ambushes for the roughly 1,000 government gunmen in town even as missile and tank fire rained down on their city. This morning, the rebels assaulted Qaddafi’s forces in their camps on the traffic circles around dawn.

Ajdabiya itself is in better shape than some feared after weeks of fighting. In the 7th of October neighborhood on the west side of town, many of the high-rises are scarred from missile and tank fire. On the east side of town, the walls of homes and businesses are pockmarked from firefights in recent days, but most of the city is intact.

Mohammed Abdel Kareem, one of a handful of doctors at the Ajdabiya hospital who remained throughout the siege, says it’s far too soon to estimate casualties. In the past two days, he says the hospital has received 100 civilian casualties, and this morning the morgue received 50 dead – but many of those are Qaddafi soldiers killed in the airstrikes.

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