Gaddafi defies NATO with push into rebels' territory
GOVERNMENT soldiers and rebel gunmen battled in the streets of a key front-line Libyan city yesterday after Muammar Gaddafi's military used shelling and guerrilla-style tactics to open its most serious push into opposition territory since international airstrikes began.
Meanwhile, air strikes by NATO hammered at Gaddafi's ammunition stockpiles and armoured forces, destroying 17 tanks. At least eight people were killed in Ajdabiya.
Recapturing the city would give the Libyan military a staging ground to attack the rebels' main stronghold, Benghazi, about 160 kilometres farther east. Gaddafi's forces were approaching Benghazi when they were driven back by the international air campaign.
For the rebels, losing the city would effectively bottle them into a coastal strip of eastern Libya and allow government forces to more tightly squeeze the few opposition pockets in the rest of the country, including the besieged western port of Misrata, where heavy clashes continued yesterday for a second day.
NATO airstrikes hit armoured vehicles firing on civilians near both Misrata and Ajdabiya, said Canadian Lt Gen Charles Bouchard, who commands the operation.
Speaking in Naples, Italy, Mr Bouchard said NATO jets had struck ammunition stockpiles that were being used to resupply forces involved in the shelling of Misrata and other population centres.
A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said warplanes had destroyed 17 tanks and damaged nine more.
International envoys opened fresh initiatives for a peace deal. The African Union said it planned to send a team to Libya today to begin meetings with the government and rebel leaders.
Meanwhile, in the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi made his first public appearance in weeks with a visit to a school. Children gave fist-pumping chants of "The people want Muammar the leader!"
The battle for Ajdabiya showed how Gaddafi's forces are adapting their strategies in response to NATO air strikes seeking to cripple the Libyan military.
Small and mobile units -- less vulnerable to airstrikes than tanks and other armour -- first ambushed a rebel convoy probing the lines outside the city.
Government gunners then began shelling Ajdabiya from desert positions and later ferried soldiers into the streets, using civilian vehicles in attempts to foil NATO pilots.
The rebels have maintained control of much of the eastern half of Libya since early in the uprising, while Gaddafi has clung to much of the west. Gaddafi has been putting out feelers for a ceasefire -- but he refuses to step down.
The NATO-led airstrikes, authorised by a UN resolution, have neutralised Gaddafi's air force and pummeled his ground forces, but the opposition remains outnumbered and outgunned.
Journalists were taken on a government-supervised trip to the outskirts of Misrata. In a farming area south of the city, pro-Gaddafi forces manned positions with pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. Tents and sniper nests were hidden in trees.