Gaddafi digs in for last stand as rebel advance grinds to a halt
The lightning rebel advance which drove back Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces over the weekend was stalled 60 miles from his birthplace of Sirte last night.
The ragtag wave of militia which had earlier swept onward with the aid of Nato air strikes, ran into stiffer opposition as it approached his family and military stronghold.
Nato, which is now in charge of the coalition action, was forced to deny its air strikes were being used as cover for the advancing rebels.
Reports last night suggested that the US Air Force has been using heavy bombers to pummel Libyan armoured forces.
Lt Gen Charles Bouchard of Canada, its commander for Libya, said the goal of air strikes was simply to "protect and help the civilians and population centres under the threat of attack".
Coalition strikes continued on government targets yesterday. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that British Tornados had destroyed ammunition bunkers in the Sebha area of the southern desert. The French said that aircraft had struck a military command centre south of the capital, Tripoli.
While Gaddafi's troops abandoned the towns of Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf with barely a shot fired, they showed no sign of fleeing Sirte so quickly.
A fluid front formed on the highway around 20 miles east of Bin Jawad as the now skittish rebels scouted forward, hoping Gaddafi loyalists would fall back as before. But with each hesitant advance, the convoys of pick-up trucks soon sped back recklessly amid rumours of enemy tanks, or snipers and minefields.
"We are worried about what is up ahead," said Abdullah Mohammad, a 35-year-old from Benghazi. "Some of those houses are full of Gaddafi loyalists and they are shooting at us as we pass."
The day began with false rebel reports that Sirte had fallen, leaving the road open to Tripoli, the capital. Nearer the front, it became clear the militia had only managed to travel a few dozen miles in 24 hours.
"God willing we will take Sirte this evening", said one rebel unconvincingly, setting off a chant of "Tonight! Tonight!" from his comrades.
But their enthusiasm failed to translate into progress along the narrow strip of tarmac which has become the main battlefield. Further NATO air strikes were critical, the rebels said. They said they were unable to deal with Col Gaddafi's armour. The advance was further hampered by a chronic shortage of petrol.
Cars and trucks queued 20 or 30 deep at pumps.
Lack of electricity meant that the remaining petrol had to be drawn by hand in water bottles dangled on string.
Rebel leaders claim to be pumping thousands of barrels of oil in their captured refinery at Ras Lanuf, but it was deserted yesterday. "There's petrol, but there is no electricity, so we cannot get it out," said Sala Hamed. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron will chair a conference on Libya today in London.
Forty foreign ministers and Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, will attend the event in London, where Britain and France will call upon Col Muammar Gaddafi's supporters to "drop him before it is too late". (© Daily Telegraph, London)