Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Outnumbered and outgunned, Libyan rebels lost control of their last town west of Tripoli on Tuesday and struggled to stall or outrun Moammar Gadhafi's forces as they raced eastward. With a punishing blockade, airstrikes and long-range missiles, Gadhafi's forces neared opposition strongholds, apparently hoping either for outright victory or to force residents to turn against the rebels.

With the victory in Zwara, a seaside town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border, and the west largely consolidated under Gadhafi, government troops and warplane raced eastward, outpacing French and British efforts to build support for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Opposition fighters were left without a major foothold in the country's west, where the Libyan leader's strength is greatest, and teetering control of some of the eastern cities that have been their support base and refuge.

Gadhafi's forces reached the outskirts of the rebel-stronghold of Ajdabiya on Tuesday afternoon, pounding the city entrance with long-range missiles, tank fire and airstrikes. One bomb destroyed a rebel camp, a panicked local activist told The Associated Press, and another wrecked a key rebel supply road.

"This isn't one or two planes. They are like a flock!" he said, as explosions went off in the background.

He said Gadhafi's forces had also pounded the crucial eastern road that linked the city to other rebel strongholds.

Residents were fleeing to nearby villages, he said. But he noted that so far, the planes were not hitting civilian targets. The activist said he saw one dead fighter, but did not know of other casualties.

Rebel spokesman Ahmed al-Zwei, at Ajdabiya's western edge, said his comrades were hoping to try stall the government advance: "God willing, no, no, no, they will not reach Ajdabiya. God willing we can push them back."

In Paris, efforts for a no-fly zone had stalled and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested in a radio interview that events on the ground in Libya have already outpaced diplomatic efforts.

"If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn't have happened," Juppe told Europe-1 radio. "But that's the past."

The victory in Zwara reversed the early rebel gains in the uprising against his rule that began on Feb. 15. Government troops had surrounded the town of 45,000 on Monday and bombarded it with tanks and artillery for hours, killing at least four rebel fighters, several residents said.

Even as Zwara fell, the Obama administration on Monday held its first high-level talks with the Libyan opposition and introduced a liaison to deal full time with their ranks. It remained undecided about exactly how much support to lend a group it still knows little about while turmoil and uncertainty increase across the Arab world.

Government troops have scored victories using overpowering bombardments with artillery, tanks, warplanes and warships. They have blockaded Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

"We are short on antibiotics and surgery supplies and disposable equipment," said a doctor in the city. "We feel so, so, isolated here. We are pleading with the international community to help us in this very difficult time."

The doctor said naval ships in the Mediterranean port were blocking aid ships. Another resident said townspeople were relying on poor quality home-dug water wells normally used to irrigate their gardens. He said in many parts of town, the water network was cut, and water tankers that traditionally supply drinking water to rooftop tanks weren't able to enter Misrata.

Government troops have scored victories using overpowering bombardments with artillery, tanks, warplanes and warships. Such an assault drove rebel fighters out of the western city of Zawiya last week.


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