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Rebels battle to hold city under Gadhafi siege

AJDABIYA, Libya (AP) — Libyan rebels battled to hold a strategic eastern city against a punishing offensive by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, voicing anger and frustration at the West for not coming to their aid. At the same time, government troops heavily shelled the last main rebel bastion near the capital.

Charred vehicles, bullet-riddled pickup trucks and an overturned tank littered the desert highway where pro-Gadhafi forces had fought up to the entrance of the key eastern city of Ajdabiya. An Associated Press Television News cameraman counted at least three bodies by the side of the road, evidence of fierce battles. Government troops were bringing in a stream of truckloads of ammunition, rockets and supplies — signs of an intensified effort by the Libyan leader to retake control of the country he has ruled with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The rebels lashed out at the West as the latest international effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya stumbled along. Supporters in the U.N. Security Council were trying to push through a resolution to impose such a move along with other measures aimed at preventing Gadhafi from bombing his people, but Russia and Germany have expressed doubts.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to accept an immediate cease-fire. He warned Gadhafi’s forces against a march on Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital in the east, saying that “a campaign to bombard such an urban center would massively place civilian lives at risk.”

Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000, is the gateway to the rebel-held eastern half of Libya and if Gadhafi troops take it, Benghazi would likely be their next target. A powerful regime force advancing from the west has been relentlessly bombarding Ajdabiya the past two days, raining rockets and artillery and tank shells on the city, sending most of its population fleeing.

Hundreds of pro-Gadhafi troops were lined up with dozens of tanks and other heavy equipment at the arches over the highway marking Ajdabiya’s western gates. The AP and other journalists brought to the scene by government escorts saw regime forces bringing in large truckloads of ammunition and equipment — a sign that that the troops were gearing up to try to sweep through Ajdabiya and likely beyond.

Rebels in Benghazi had sent reinforcements, moving in within a few miles of Ajdabiya and battling with government forces on the eastern side of the city, said a local activist, Abdul-Bari Zwei, and another activist in Benghazi in touch with fighters on the ground in the city.

Opposition officials said rebel warplanes struck at pro-Gadhafi forces near the western gate — the first time the rebels have struck from the air at troops on the ground. A gas station attendant on the highway said he saw a rebel helicopter firing rockets and machine guns. A colonel in the pro-Gadhafi force, Moftah Sabia, said the rebels did have some aircraft that they had used against the troops.

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