Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s forces on Monday bombarded rebel positions on the doorstep of Ajdabiya, a key town which the revolution against his rule has vowed to defend at all costs.
Gaddafi’s forces have won a string of victories in recent days and if the gateway town of Ajdabiya falls it would leave open the roads to the rebel headquarters city of Benghazi and the key north-eastern port of Tobruk.
A thick sandstorm early on Monday limited the activities of Gaddafi’s warplanes, but rebels on the exposed western edge of the small town showed journalists two craters some four metres across and five metres apart near a road junction, attracting dozens of sightseers.
Former air force colonel turned rebel field commander Jamal Mansur said Libya’s Russian-built Sukhoi-24 attack aircraft had carried out strikes, and bombardments had targeted military buildings in Ajdabiya.
Mansur also claimed some fighters were still holding out in Brega, 80km to the west, which the Libyan army said had been captured on Sunday, but that this small pocket of resistance was increasingly beleaguered.
“Gaddafi’s forces are practising a scorched earth policy but our forces regained a foothold in Brega last night,” he said. “They are still there but are undergoing intense attacks by artillery and from the navy.”
One young rebel in Ajdabiya, an armed volunteer named Fathalla who joined the fighting 10 days ago, also said fighting was continuing in Brega. “There’s no front line, but we still have people there,” he said.
Mansur was speaking in a rebel forward headquarters in Ajdabiya, a school in the town centre surrounded by truck-mounted anti-aircraft batteries pointing skyward and manned by former soldiers and revolutionary volunteers.
As the sandstorm blew over the area, dozens of civilians were evacuating the town, heading north-east for Benghazi aboard light trucks loaded with suitcases, bags and mattresses, leaving shops shuttered behind them.
At the town hospital a doctor, Wanis Obeidi, his features drawn, said five people were wounded in the recent attacks. One was undergoing surgery but the other four had been discharged.
Obeidi said that a child of four, evacuated from Ras Lanuf to the west, had died on his way to Benghazi.
He said two colleagues were still missing from last week’s clashes between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, the furthest point of the rebel rush westward before they were checked.
On the western edge of Ajdabiya, rebels professed themselves eager for a fight but showed themselves pitifully ill-armed. A doctor, Ahmed al-Moghrabi, said all he had was an old shotgun but added proudly he had been at Ras Lanuf.
Overall rebel military commander General Abdel Fatah Yunis, who resigned as Gaddafi’s interior minister soon after the uprising began in mid-February, said Ajdabiya was “a vital city” and key to his defence plan.
“It’s on the route to the east, to Benghazi and to Tobruk and also to the south. Ajdabiya’s defence is very important… We will defend it,” he told reporters in Benghazi.
The lightly armed rebels have been pushed back at least 200km by superior forces in recent days, retreating from the coastal towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega in quick succession under heavy shelling and air attacks.
Gaddafi’s regime has vowed its eastward drive will “purge” eastern Libya of the rebellion, which erupted against his autocratic rule a month ago in the wake of similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
From Ajdabiya one road runs north along the coast to Benghazi, Libya’s second city, with a population of one million. Another crosses the desert to the oil port of Tobruk, which gives rebels control up to the Egyptian border.
Mansur warned that Ajdabiya could become “another Zawiyah”, referring to the town just outside Tripoli recaptured by Gaddafi’s troops last week after bitter and deadly fighting.
He admitted the rebels were seriously ill-equipped and warned they could be forced into urban guerrilla warfare.
Mansur said Gaddafi loyalists “have spies with technology we don’t possess”.
“They can buy informers thanks to their money, while we are very limited logistically.
“We are asking the West to carry out targeted strikes on military installations to ease the grip” of Tripoli, he said.
French officials have suggested the international community could launch surgical airstrikes and impose a no-fly zone over Libya, but other powers, including the United States, are reluctant to be drawn into the fighting.