Gaddafi forces attack rebels on Ajdabiyah outskirts

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces fired rockets on Sunday at rebels stationed along the edge of Ajdabiyah, sending some residents fleeing from the eastern town, witnesses said.

Repeated explosions and machinegun fire could be heard near Ajdabiyah, a gateway to Libya's rebel-held east that has changed hands repeatedly in weeks of back-and-forth fighting.

A witness said he saw about a dozen rockets land around the town's western gateway in the morning. Rebel fighters backed up his account.

A sandstorm whipped up during the morning, obscuring the flat expanse of desert stretching west to the oil town of Brega. Rebel fighter Ahmed al-Zuwaihi blamed the weather for a lack of air strikes on Gaddafi's armour by NATO warplanes.

"The weather is no good today. NATO hasn't hit anything," he said. "It's a big opportunity for Gaddafi and he's taking advantage of it. He might enter Ajdabiyah today. Today the planes are not going to hit anything."

Rebel fighter Marwane al-Toumi said he believed the rocket fire came from 20 km (12 miles) west of the town. Two civilians said they saw two Grad rockets land inside Ajdabiyah, but there was no way of verifying their account.

There was no sign of a ground assault by Gaddafi's forces but, with the rebels often unable to hold their ground against the better-armed government loyalists, many in the town took the rocket attacks as a cue to leave.

Scores of volunteer fighters and civilian cars carrying men, women and children streamed east from the city down the coast road towards Benghazi, Libya's second city where the popular revolt against Gaddafi's 41-year rule began on Feb. 17.

Street War

Ajdabiyah's streets were almost deserted by mid-afternoon and rebels fearing attack by Gaddafi's forces had begun barricading the road through the town with concrete blocks, tree branches, trash bins and anything else they could find.

Rebel pick-up trucks patrolled the streets and men took up positions across the town with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Others returned to positions at the western gate with their weapons pointed west and south into the desert.

"We are ready for a street war. We are prepared. We have got dynamite and we've got grenades," said rebel fighter Emtar el-Farjany, who was holding a stick of dynamite.

Staff at Ajdabiyah's hospital said no wounded or dead had arrived by early afternoon, but some medics were clearly on edge as shells pounded the city's western outskirts.

"They might attack the hospital," Mansour, a 24-year-old volunteer medic, said. "It happened in Misrata, maybe it will happen in Ajdabiyah too." Misrata, a rebel enclave in western Libya, has been under siege by Gaddafi's forces for weeks.

Days of sporadic clashes on the road west to Brega have failed to break a deadlock in the fighting.

Rebel officials said on Saturday their most experienced soldiers were battling Gaddafi's forces on the edge of Brega.

But the front line keeps shifting due to the hit-and-run style of fighting, long-distance shelling and the growing tendency of Gaddafi's followers to launch outflanking manoeuvres and ambush less experienced rebel fighters on the coastal road.

The insurgents pushed hundreds of kilometres west towards the capital Tripoli in late March after foreign warplanes began bombing Gaddafi's positions to protect civilians. But the largely untrained rebels proved unable to hold territory and were pushed back as far as Ajdabiyah.

The rebels have called repeatedly for heavier arms, saying their machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades are not powerful enough to face the government forces.

"We want weapons, modern weapons," said rebel Ayman Aswey, 21. "If we had those, we could advance against them."

[Source: By Alexander Dziadosz, Reuters, Ajdabiyah, Lby, 17Apr11]

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