Buoyed by strikes, Libya rebels try to advance

A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun Monday, while another one kneels over the grave of his dead brother, killed in the fighting, on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, Libya.

A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun Monday, while another one kneels over the grave of his dead brother, killed in the fighting, on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, Libya. Photo by The Associated Press.

ZWITINA, Libya (AP) — Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night Monday, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Ghadafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.

But the rebellion’s more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.

The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi’s forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.

Libyan state TV said Monday night a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi’s troops from attacking rebel cities — in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians — the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.

President Barack Obama said Monday that “it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go.” But, he said, the international air campaign has a more limited goal, to protect civilians.

“Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gadhafi to his people. Not only was he carrying out murders of civilians but he threatened more,” the president said on a visit to Chile.

Among the rebels, as well, there was a realization that fighting could be drawn out. Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.

“The balance has changed a lot,” he said. “But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi’s people are professional fighters.”

Disorganization among the rebels could also hamper their attempts to exploit the turn of events. Since the uprising began, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country.

Regular citizens — residents of the “liberated” areas — took up arms and formed a ragtag, highly enthusiastic but highly undisciplined force that in the past weeks has charged ahead to fight Gadhafi forces, only to be beaten back by superior firepower. Regular army units that joined the rebellion have proven stronger, more organized fighters, but only a few units have joined the battles while many have stayed behind as officers struggle to get together often antiquated, limited equipment and form a coordinated force.

Meanwhile, a “political leadership” has formed, made up of former members of Gadhafi’s regime who defected along with prominent local figures in the east, such as lawyers and doctors. The impromptu nature of their leadership has left some in the West — particularly in the United States — unclear on who the rebels are that the international campaign is protecting.

The disarray among the opposition was on display on Monday.

With Benghazi relieved, several hundred of the “citizen fighters” barreled to the west, vowing to break a siege on the city of Ajdabiya by Gadhafi forces, which have been pounding a rebel force holed up inside the city since before the allied air campaign began. The fighters pushed without resistance down the highway from Benghazi — littered with the burned out husks of Gadhafi’s tanks and armored personnel carriers hit in the airstrikes — until they reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Along the way, they swept into the nearby oil port of Zwitina, just northeast of Ajdabiya, which was also the scene of heavy fighting last week — though now had been abandoned by regime forces. There, a power station hit by shelling on Thursday was still burning, its blackened fuel tank crumpled, with flames and black smoke pouring out.

Some of the fighters, armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers and truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, charged to the city outskirts and battled with Gadhafi forces in the morning. A number of rebels were killed before they were forced to pull back somewhat, said the spokesman for the rebels’ organized military forces, Khalid al-Sayah.

Al-Sayah said the fighters’ advance was spontaneous “as always.” But the regular army units that have joined the rebellion are not yet ready to go on the offensive. “We don’t want to advance without a plan,” he told AP in Benghazi. “If it were up to the army, the advance today would not have happened.”

He said the regular units intend to advance but not yet, saying it was not yet ready. “It’s a new army, we’re starting it from scratch.”

By Monday afternoon, around 150 citizen-fighters were massed in a field of dunes several miles outside Ajdabiya. Some stood on the wind-swept dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gadhafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.

“There are five Gadhafi tanks and eight rocket launchers behind those trees and lots of 4x4s,” one rebel fighter, Fathi Obeidi, standing on a dune and pointing at a line of trees between his position and the city, told an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

Gadhafi forces have ringed the city’s entrance and were battling with opposition fighters inside, rebels said. The plan is for the rebel forces from Benghazi “to pinch” the regime troops while “those inside will push out,” Obeidi said. He said a special commando unit that defected to the opposition early on in the uprising was inside the city leading the defense.

So far, allied bombardment has concentrated on knocking out Libyan air defenses, but a significant test of international intentions will be whether eventually the strikes by ship-fired cruise missiles and warplanes will try to break the sieges of Ajdabiya and Misrata by targeting the Gadhafi troops surrounding them.

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