Rebels take key Libyan towns, Kadhafi forces retreat

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi were retreating after rebels recaptured the key eastern towns of Ajdabiya and Brega, their first major victories since Western-led air strikes began a week ago.

In Tripoli, a government spokesman accused the coalition forces of killing soldiers and civilians alike in the latest wave of air strikes.

Libyan rebels celebrate on a destroyed tank in the strategic oil town of Ajdabiya

US President Barack Obama meanwhile, under pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a "bloodbath" threatened by Kadhafi.

In the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, rebel spokesman, Shamsiddin Abdulmollah, told reporters Ajdabiya was "100 percent in the hands of our forces."

Kadhafi's forces were "on the back foot ... 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 treated as prisoners of war.

A rebel fighter told AFP that insurgents had also retaken Brega. A journalist travelling with them confirmed seeing rebels in control of the centre of the oil town, and said government forces had completely withdrawn.

Earlier the rebels, backed by the Western barrage, poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents reported.

The bodies of at least two pro-Kadhafi fighters were surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing into the air and shouting "God is greater."

Outside Ajdabiya, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP.

Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes. Residents accused them of having brutalised the population.

"The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop," Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP.

"I couldn't move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on."

In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late Saturday that coalition air strikes were killing soldiers and civilians along the 400-kilometre (250-mile) road between Ajdabiya and Sirte, in the east.

"Tonight the air strikes against our nation continue with full power," said spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.

"We are losing many lives, military and civilians."

He repeated calls for a ceasefire and an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.

Earlier, rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani told reporters in Benghazi that Kadhafi's forces at Ajdabiya had refused several offers to surrender before rebel fighters attacked.

Ajdabiya, straddling the key road to Benghazi, is the first town recaptured by the rebels since a coalition of Western forces launched UN-backed air strikes on March 19 to stop Kadhafi's forces attacking civilians.

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

Later Saturday, a rebel spokesman said that coalition warplanes were flying over Misrata, Libya's third city, after the earlier appeals for help.

Another spokesman said he believed a hospital ship organised by aid groups was also en route to Misrata, under NATO escort from Malta.

But at least three people were killed in Misrata Saturday, a doctor contacted by AFP said, bringing to 117 the number killed there, with more than 1,300 wounded in a week of attacks by Kadhafi forces.

French fighters destroyed at least five warplanes and two helicopters from pro-Kadhafi forces in the Zintan and Misrata regions on Saturday, said a statement on the French armed forces website.

British warplanes destroyed five Libyan armoured vehicles in air strikes on Ajdabiya and Misrata Friday, the defence ministry in London said.

The Pentagon said western-led strikes had continued apace Saturday with 160 missions flown, compared to 153 a day earlier.

Air strikes early Saturday had left a radar facility in flames in Tajura, on the outskirts of Tripoli, a witness told AFP. The suburb is home to several military bases.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview set to air Sunday, accused Kadhafi's forces of planting bodies "of the people he's killed" at the site of allied air strikes, to make it look as they were civilian victims.

And Obama gave his most detailed review of the conflict so far, insisting that national interests were behind his decision to order US forces into the UN-mandated combat.

"Make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- have been saved," he said in his weekly radio and online address.

When innocent people are brutalised by a leader like Kadhafi threatening a "bloodbath," and when nations were prepared to respond together, "it's in our national interest to act," Obama said.

The military mission was "clear and focused," he added, noting that the UN Security Council had mandated the no-fly zone to prevent "further atrocities."

"We're succeeding in our mission. We've taken out Libya's air defences. Kadhafi's forces are no longer advancing across Libya."

Libya's opposition's interim national council leader Mahmoud Jibril went so far as to say his people no longer needed outside help, in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy published by the daily Le Figaro.

"The Libyan people see you as liberators. Its recognition will be eternal," he wrote.

But he added: "We do not want outside forces. We won't need them. We will win the first battle thanks to you. We will win the next battle through our own means."

But Russia's chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, told the Interfax news agency he did not think air strikes had got results.

"If their aim was to topple the regime of Kadhafi, then probably they will not manage without a ground phase. I would not rule it out."

He reaffirmed Russia's position that it would not join the international operation.

AFP

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