Rebels claim key Libyan city after assault from Qaddafi forces

While Qaddafi's forces attacked Ajdabiya, a key crossroads in the battle for control in eastern Libya, a rebel leader said today the city remains 'in the hands of the revolution.'

Jerome Delay/AP
Following the announcement on Libyan state television that Moammar Gadhafi's forces took the Eastern city of Ajdabiya, Gadhafi supporters celebrate on Green Square in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday. But an official with the opposition movement says that the town remains in rebel hands.

A military spokesman for the rebel government in Benghazi, Libya, says the situation for the forces seeking to oust Muammar Qaddafi isn’t as grim as it appeared to many earlier today.

Mr. Qaddafi’s forces rained destruction on Ajdabiya today with fighter jets and rockets, and witnesses in the afternoon saw hundreds of militiamen fleeing the city, which is a key crossroads in the battle for control of eastern Libya.

By late afternoon, some of Qaddafi’s forces were seen in the city. But Khaled el-Sayeh, a spokesman for Abdel Fatah Younes, a former Qaddafi loyalist now in overall command of rebel forces, says the town remains in rebel hands.

At a press conference, Mr. Sayeh said that a few small units under the command of Qaddafi’s son Saadi, a former professional soccer player, made it into the city. He said all of the men in those pro-Qaddafi units were killed, though he didn’t know their numbers.

That action, mounted by rebel forces that remained in the city, caused Qaddafi’s forces to pull back, and there now a few kilometers west of the entrance to town, he said. “The city [Ajdabiya] is currently in the hands of the revolution and it’s looking pretty good,” he said.

He also said that the rebels' navy sank two oil tankers converted to “warships” today, and badly damaged a third, though he didn’t say what naval assets were used to accomplish that or where it happened.

Perhaps more interestingly, he said rebels seized without resistance an oil tanker carrying 25,000 tons of fuel en route from Greece to Tripoli. Sayeh said the vessel, the Anwar Afriqiyah, is registered to Qaddafi’s son Hannibal and that 30 sailors on board are now in rebel custody, in good condition and being questioned.

He did not say where the vessel was seized or its current location beyond saying that it’s at a port controlled by the revolution and that the fuel will be used to support their operations.

Hannibal Qaddafi controls a Libyan government company that has a virtual monopoly on transporting the country’s oil exports. That the country was seeking to ship in fuel implies Qaddafi’s forces are facing shortages of at least refined fuel.

Sayeh said that many rebel forces did withdraw from a line just west of the city under sustained aerial attack earlier today, and withdrew on the coastal highway without going through town. But he said those retreating forces were not joined by the bulk of the rebellion’s militia in the city proper.

He added that the rebellion has started to fly fighter jets of its own, and that they helped drive Qaddafi’s jets away from Ajdabiya today. He said the rebels are still requesting a no-fly zone from the international community. “The Colonel (Qaddafi) uses his air force indiscriminately, against civilians. That’s why we’re insisting on a no-fly zone,” he said.

This evening, an Ajdabiya resident said there were no more signs of fighting in the town, and that he too believed that whatever pro-Qaddafi troops had been present had withdrawn to the city’s western outskirts.

Events in Ajdabiya earlier today alarmed many in Benghazi. A large chunk of the foreign press corps here withdrew further east, deeper into rebel territory, and many Benghazi residents sent family out of the city for safety.

Asked if there was any chance of Benghazi, a city of 1 million, falling to Qaddafi, Sayeh said, “No, none.”

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