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'There's constant gunfire in this siege city -- and the y don't care who they hit'

A city besieged and battered, those of its people who remain living without food, water or power for days and facing daily attacks: that was Ajdabiya today as Gaddafi's forces fought to retain their hold on this strategic gateway to the east of Libya.

Despite the destruction of the regime's tanks and artillery by pulverising Western air strikes and the terrified retreat of its troops, the rebels, not for the first time in this war, failed to press home their advantage and retake the city.

Instead, they had fled in abject panic at the first sign of a counter-attack. There is, however, a resilient resistance inside Ajdabiya, and its members guided me through desert tracks into the areas they had wrested back by battling the enemy day after day.


Why, these fighters wondered, had the protest movement's leadership in Benghazi failed to tap into local knowledge and use these routes to outflank the regime's troops? The desert roads had also been used by the desperate residents of the city to escape.

Only a quarter of the population of 135,000 are now left inside. The empty streets reverberate with the sound of explosions, and every shop is shuttered; the hospital is still dealing with casualties, but its dwindling medical supplies cannot cope with any of the serious cases who have had to be moved out by ambulances often risking crossfire.

Although the revolutionary fighters, the Shabaab, have fought their way to control of the centre and some of the suburbs, there is still a near-constant threat from Gaddafi's soldiers.

My Libyan interpreter and I had to repeatedly move through side roads and alleyways as fresh salvoes of rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov fire came from different directions.

Much of the shooting took place with careless disregard for who was at the receiving end.

"Look what they had done," said Hamza Zwas, a 26-year-old militant, pointing at a large hole on the side of a house which had just been hit by a mortar round.

"That is the way they have fired, we have had people killed, injured, because they don't care about what they do.

"People are frightened and that is why they left."

The house which had been hit was empty, the owners leaving last week.

The 18-year-old son of the family next door, Selim Ansabi, died three days ago when a car on the high street was hit by an artillery shell.

"He was a passenger, his friend was driving. He lost his arm," said Selim's father, Abdullah, shaking his head


"Neither of the boys were Shabaab, they were not fighting, why did they use something so bad in the middle of our city? They must have known that people will be killed, they will be hurt."

Col Gaddafi's forces were in control of the west and east entrances to Ajdabiya when we left, firing shells into the city at people he had repeatedly stressed loved him, and who he loved.

"There had not been any big bombings today, we are worried the foreigners will not maintain it," said the fighter Hamza Zwas, rubbing his shoulder beneath an Abercrombie&Fitch T-shirt.

He had been struck by a bullet in the early days of the uprising, but returned to the fray after surgery in Egypt.

"But we have been fighting for some time now, and we will continue," he said.