By Mohammed Abbas
RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) - Residents of the eastern Libyan town of Ras Lanuf, fearing assault by government forces, were leaving in cars laden with belongings on Monday and rebels said they had moved weapons into the desert for safekeeping.
There was little sign of rebels on the main road heading eastwards out of Ras Lanuf, a day after they retreated to the town from Bin Jawad, the next center to the west, under artillery fire from the counter-attacking government army.
Reporters evacuated Ras Lanuf's main hotel before dawn after staff warned they could not guarantee their safety, and came across only a small number of visibly agitated rebels at two checkpoints en route out of the oil port to the east.
"We heard our positions would be bombed, so we took our weapons away," one rebel told Reuters on the dusty, windswept highway. Another said: "We took them out into the desert."
A third rebel said the insurgents were redeploying into the desert to prepare for an attempt to wrest back Bin Jawad.
The night before, rebel commanders had been seen seated in the Ras Lanuf hotel lobby with a big sheet of paper on which red arrows were pointing in various directions, planning a military operation of some kind.
But rebels at the checkpoints were nervous rather than confident as before, saying families were fleeing Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad to get out of possible harm's way.
"We are leaving simply because it will be safer," said the head of one family in a car stuffed with household belongings.
Some rebels accused Gaddafi's forces of using the local population of Bin Jawad as human shields in the fighting.
Withering heavy weapons fire from Gaddafi loyalists forced outgunned rebels to pull back on Sunday from Bin Jawad, at least temporarily reversing their thrust toward Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's hometown some 160 km (100 miles) to the west.
Hundreds of the loosely organized rebels suddenly tore back at high speed in pickup trucks and other vehicles to Ras Lanuf to regroup, with many saying they feared an army advance but some wanting to return immediately to the front line.
Rebels had captured Bin Jawad on Saturday but then retreated, which let the army occupy houses and mount an ambush earlier on Sunday.
Doctors at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 31 injured had arrived from fighting in Bin Jawad. Witnesses said many dead and wounded could not be reached because of the fighting.
(Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Nick Macfie)