Rebel confidence soars as US strikes drive Gaddafi's forces out of key city
Fall of Ajdabiya is first significant victory since no-fly zone put in place
Khalif Ameen leaped on the blackened tank, its innards hollowed out by the blast of a missile from an unseen plane, and waved his Kalashnikov as he declared the war all but won. "Now Gaddafi is finished. We have won Ajdabiya. We will not stop. Next Brega, Ras Lanuf, Sirte, Tripoli. Gaddafi will go quick," said the young man, who a few weeks ago was an engineering student.
But the burnt-out remnants of the Libyan dictator's armour abandoned on the outskirts of Ajdabiya after the strategic town fell to rebel forces yesterday told a different story that does not bode well for Ameen's dream of marching to Tripoli.
The fall of Ajdabiya, after days of air bombardment delivered the Libyan revolutionaries their first significant victory over Muammar Gaddafi's forces since the air strikes began a week ago.
The Libyan army sat outside town blocking the rebels' attempts to advance toward the capital and recapture territory lost in the past fortnight.
On Friday, the insurgents moved rocket launchers and other weapons down the road from Benghazi, then said they fought through the night with the dug-in enemy. "We hit them with our rockets and RPGs," said Mohammed Rahim, a former regular soldier who went over to the rebels at the beginning of the uprising last month. "The fighting went on all night."
However, the destruction of tanks on the edge of the town suggested it was air strikes by coalition forces, ostensibly to protect civilians, that had finally broken the back of strong resistance by army forces before the rebels moved in. The length of time it took the insurgents to overcome the army, and the rebels' reliance on air strikes to destroy the bulk of its armour before finally taking Ajdabiya, confirmed how dependent the poorly armed revolutionaries are on foreign air forces to fight their war for them.
Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, acknowledged the defeat, which he blamed on the "heavy involvement" of western forces. "This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians, because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," he said.
Six wrecked tanks marked the road into the town alongside artillery guns and rocket launchers mangled by the missiles from beyond the clouds. Other guns were left intact and hauled away by the rebels for the next battle.
On the other side of Ajdabiya, where the road heads west out of town, squatted more destroyed tanks. Abandoned piles of weapons suggested Gaddafi's forces had left in a hurry. Corpses of Gaddafi fighters lay among the armour, but around others there was no sign of bodies, perhaps further evidence that they had fled from their tanks in fear of the air strikes.
Days of air strikes were carried out by France and the US, plus British aircraft on Friday. The rebels took control of a mostly empty town, raising the revolutionary flag -- the pre-Gaddafi-era ensign -- and firing off more bullets in celebration. As word spread that the fighting was over, residents began to pour back in hundreds of cars. But for all the celebrations, the rebels' struggle to overcome the limited defences of Ajdabiya does not bode well for their bellicose threats to march all the way to Tripoli.
If Ajdabiya is the example, it offers the prospect of a protracted conflict or military stalemate, largely decided by how far the western allies are prepared to go in support of the rebels' advance.
The revolutionaries can probably retake the small towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. But moving on to the larger town of Sirte may prove to be a challenge too far. Sirte is Gaddafi's birthplace and he is likely to reinforce the town because its fall would be a devastating blow.
A rebel assault on Sirte would also raise a dilemma for Nato and the coalition leading the air strikes. The UN resolution permits military action in defence of civilians. Until now, it has been Gaddafi's forces threatening rebel-held cities. But a rebel assault on Sirte would present the question of whether the coalition is prepared to launch air strikes to help take a town that has not risen up against Gaddafi.
Meanwhile rebel hopes are growing around their progress on the eastern rebel-held city of Misrata, under siege now for two weeks. French warplanes have destroyed five Libyan military planes and two helicopters at Misrata air base in the past 24 hours.