Kadhafi on 'back foot' as rebels take Ajdabiya

BENGHAZI, Libya, March 26, 2011 (AFP) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi are now "on the back foot" and are being pursued as they retreat from a key eastern city after coalition air strikes, rebel spokesmen said Saturday.

The city, Ajdabiya, "is 100 percent in the hands of our forces, and we are pursuing Kadhafi's forces on the road to Brega," 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, one spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmollah, told reporters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"Who is on the back foot are Kadhafi's forces because they no longer have air power and heavy weaponry available" after a week of bombing by coalition warplanes, he said.

Another spokesman, Ahmed Khalifa, said the rebels had captured at least 13 Kadhafi fighters who were being treating as prisoners of war.

That figure, counted as of late Friday, could increase as the rebels swept through Ajdabiya, he said.

"At the moment a combing process is underway in the city," Khalifa said.

He added that two civilians died and nine were wounded in fighting in Ajdabiya early Saturday. But he said coalition bombing overnight and early Saturday had not caused any civilian fatalities.

French Marines prepare a Rafale jet fighter on the deck of the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle on March 25, 2011. AFP

Abdulmollah said the coalition air strikes had "evened the playing field" for the rebels battling Kadhafi's forces.

The rebels two weeks ago had triumphantly claimed to have taken charge of Ajdabiya, only to be pushed out last week by a regime offensive that even threatened to crush their Benghazi stronghold at one point.

Coalition bombardments, though, forced Kadhafi's forces back to Ajdabiya, where tanks had been holding off the rebels until the air strikes took them out. Rebels waving the "V" for victory sign swept in early Saturday.

Reporters in Ajdabiya said the roads were clear of any armoured forces loyal to Kadhafi, and the town's western gate was open as people poured into the town.

Abdulmollah said another factor helping the rebels take Ajdabiya was that experienced military officers and soldiers who had defected from Kadhafi's side early in the conflict had since Thursday taken the lead role on besieging Ajdabiya, restraining gung-ho but undisciplined untrained rebels.

Those ex-military rebels had coordinated their attacks with the coalition, firing between bombing raids, the two spokesmen said.

But in Libya's west, where the capital Tripoli and most of Kadhafi's support was located, the port city of Misrata was in dire need of outside help from coalition jets and humanitarian groups because of attacks by Kadhafi forces, the rebels said.

"Please, do something about Misrata," one member of the rebellion, Mustafa Gheriani, pleaded.

"People there are willing to take casualties. They need intervention," he said. "Please, they need a floating hospital."

Abdulmollah said he believed a floating hospital organised by non-governmental organisations was on its way to Misrata under NATO escort from Malta.

The spokesman, however, reaffirmed the rebels' position that no foreign troops should set foot in Libya.

Asked about a report in the US newspaper the Washington Post that the United States and its NATO allies were considering supplying weapons to the Libyan rebels, Khalifa said they had been making such a request for some time.

No arm deliveries have been made so far, but they would be welcome, as would any military training France or other countries might be willing to provide, he said.

Khalifa said the rebels also rejected an effort by the African Union to resolve the conflict "on behalf of the Kadhafi regime."

The opposition would not participate in any such negotiations, he said, adding that "the only way to resolve this conflict is for Kadhafi and his sons to be handed over for crimes against humanity."

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