Battle intensifies as Qaddafi troops move on rebel city

April 11, 2011 - 0:0

AJDABIYA, Libya — Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi clashed on Sunday with Libyan opposition fighters for control of Ajdabiya in a bid to claim control of the strategically vital rebel city.

News services reported fighting moved into a second day on Sunday near the city. Reuters reported that pro-Qaddafi forces killed four rebel fighters, adding that witness reports near the city’s eastern gate gave accounts of fresh shooting and artillery fire.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that government forces had shot down two helicopters being used by opposition fighters. Colonel Qaddafi’s forces began the attack late Saturday morning with barrages of rocket and artillery fire aimed at Ajdabiya’s center. Then, as smoke rose and confusion grew, a gun battle began as they sent a contingent of ground troops into the city.
The assault was more determined and organized than the ambushes and exchanges of rocket and artillery fire of recent days. Barrage after barrage of incoming fire thudded and exploded within the city, and loyalist troops advanced behind it. Thick smoke rose and drifted from central Ajdabiya, and by noon doctors were evacuating the city’s hospital as explosions shook the streets.
Many of the rebels fled once again, streaming north up toward Benghazi, the rebel capital, their horns blaring. One rebel fighter shouted at vehicles as they passed: “Qaddafi’s forces are coming! Go! Go! Go!”
But a cadre of lightly armed local residents remained to fight for their homes, stopping the loyalists on Istanbul Street in the city’s center.
“We killed 10 of them,” said Said Halum, who stood in the morgue in the late afternoon over the body of his brother, Abdul Ghadir Halum, who had been shot between the eyes. “Our group split into two groups on Istanbul Street and fought them. The firing was very heavy.”
As the gun battle raged, the main rebel force rallied about 10 miles north of Ajdabiya. By evening, it had begun moving past the city’s northeastern checkpoint, from where the fighters fanned out and briefly re-established a degree of control of Ajdabiya’s eastern and central districts.
Gunfire ebbed in those areas, but skirmishes could be heard on the city’s southern and western sides. Then the barrages started again, leading many rebels to flee anew.
It was a confusing, fast-moving and violent day, with resolve and panic both on display. Brutality was briefly evident, too, in the form of mob rule.
In the midafternoon, as the rebels searched cars at the city’s northeastern checkpoint and the fighting continued, they dragged a man from a vehicle, rushed him to the far shoulder of the road and shot him. The man’s capture, and his hasty burial, could be seen through binoculars from a few hundred yards away, though the execution was not visible because the crowd around the prisoner was too thick.
Journalists who tried to interview the executioners were chased away by gunfire that swept the checkpoint and the area nearby, apparently by coincidence. The bullets scattered the gathered crowd.
Later, after the gunfire subsided, several rebels said the man had been shot because he was known to be a loyalist agent. His name could not immediately be determined.
NATO airstrikes also came into play in the battle: at least one created a cloud over the city’s western neighborhoods at 1:25 p.m. as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces were barraging the city. But the allied air campaign was again unable to keep the military from pressing the rebels, as had been the case throughout a week of fighting that saw the ragged opposition forces losing their footholds on the main coastal road, including the city of Brega. Mr. Halum, clutching a battered assault rifle as he wandered the morgue while his brother’s body was being washed, seemed both angry and perplexed. To reach Ajdabiya, the Qaddafi loyalists had crossed roughly 50 miles of open desert.
“Where is NATO?” he said. “The Qaddafi military came from Brega to Ajdabiya. Why do they not stop them?”
Though the airstrikes have deprived the pro-Qaddafi forces use of many of their armored vehicles, the rebels have been unable to match them, and the loyalists have turned to deception and infiltration. Moving in small units in civilian trucks and cars, they have managed to evade airstrikes and to confuse the rebel forces, whom they can resemble from afar. At the same time, the loyalists have managed to creep forward with artillery or rocket launchers, which they have used to pound rebel positions for several days and have now turned on the city.
(Source: The New York Times)