By Mohammed Abbas
ROAD TO BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels fought an artillery duel with the Libyan army on Sunday near a town on the road to Sirte, the hometown of Muammar Gaddafi and a prize they are determined to capture.
Rebels captured Bin Jawad, 160 km (100 miles) from Sirte, on Saturday but then pulled back, which let the army occupy houses and mount an ambush earlier on Sunday. Rebels were forced into a full retreat to Ras Lanuf port to regroup for another attack.
The new rebel front line was three km (2 miles) from Bin Jawad, firing rockets and mortar bombs at the army which returned fire with similar weapons plus heavy artillery.
Hundreds of fighters armed with machineguns and assault rifles were waiting to advance.
"The firing is sustained, there is the thud of shells landing, the whoosh of rockets, puffs of smoke and heavy machine gun fire in the distance," a Reuters correspondent said.
"We've seen rebels dancing around due to shrapnel from exploding ordnance."
Trucks with ammunition and supplies moved to and from the front line. Smoke rose above the battlefield.
One fighter, returning wounded from Bin Jawad to rebel-held Ras Lanuf further east, said Gaddafi loyalists had earlier ambushed rebels with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Asked what he had seen, he replied: "Death." Distraught and bandaged, he would not say any more.
In the rebel-held city of Benghazi, a source in the rebel movement said rebels had captured "some British special forces" who were "safe and in good hands." Earlier, Britain's defense minister said a UK diplomatic team was in Benghazi.
"It's real fierce fighting, like Vietnam," rebel fighter Ali Othman told Reuters of the earlier ambush at Bin Jawad. "Every kind of weapon is being used. We've retreated from an ambush and we are going to regroup."
"Gaddafi's forces attacked with aircraft and shot from on top of the houses," said Ibrahim Boudabbous, a fighter who took part in the rebel advance.
Doctors and other staff 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, including civilians.
One man said he had seen a civilian building hit by a bomb.
"The wounded people shouted at us to get their children out. We left the dead," said Khaled Abdul Karim, a rebel fighter.
"I saw civilians shouting and screaming. They had been pushed out of their homes. I saw about 20 to 25 people who looked dead, they were civilians or rebels," said Ashraf Youssef, a rebel fighter.
Some rebels said the people of Bin Jawad had sided with Gaddafi's forces. "There has been treachery. I saw people in civilian clothes firing on us," said Ibrahim Rugrug, a rebel fighter. His comments were echoed by others.
But some in the group criticized Rugrug's accounts, saying: "They are our brothers. They were forced by Gaddafi."
Rebels said they had shot down a helicopter. Three fighters told Reuters they had seen it falling into the sea, but no details were available.
"THEY'RE ALL REBELS HERE"
Despite government claims, rebels were still clearly in control of Benghazi and the key oil complex of Ras Lanuf, which they took on Friday night.
"They're all rebels here," a witness in Ras Lanuf said. A warplane struck Ras Lanuf on Sunday but no one was hurt.
Britain has a diplomatic team in the city of Benghazi, Defense Secretary Liam Fox said. He declined to comment on the reports Libyan rebels had captured a British special forces unit on a mission to contact opposition leaders.
One rebel commander said earlier his forces had pushed west from Bin Jawad and controlled the town of al-Nawfaliyah, 120 km (75 miles) from Sirte, where they would await a call from citizens in Sirte before advancing. There were differing accounts of whether al-Nawfaliyah was still rebel-held.
"It's not difficult to take Sirte," Colonel Bashir Abdul Gadir told Reuters. "I think 70 percent of regular people are with us there, but they have asked us not to go into Sirte fearing heavy battles. We're going to wait till they call us to let us know when they are ready."
The colonel, speaking in Ras Lanuf, said there were about 8,000 rebel soldiers between Ras Lanuf and al-Nawfaliyah and Gaddafi's forces were reinforcing the Libyan leader's hometown of Sirte, further west down the coast, from the south.
"We have our brothers in Sirte and they won't accept this situation. They know he is a killer and stole our money and they are going to be with us," Abdul Gadir said, denying government statements that it controls Ras Lanuf.
In Libya's eastern second city of Benghazi, where the uprising began, Colonel Lamine Abdelwahab, a member of the rebel military council for the Benghazi area, said:
"We have received contact from members of the Gaddafda tribe (Gaddafi's tribe) in Sirte who want to negotiate ... There will be no negotiations. They are asking us what we want. We say we don't want Gaddafi (in power)."
Abdelwahab said soldiers belonging to the Ferjan tribes were executed for refusing to fight rebels. "They (the Ferjan tribe in Sirte) are joining the rebellion because of this atrocity. The problem is that they are unarmed. Only the Gaddafda were armed by the regime."
Gaddafi may have more than 20,000 fighters in Sirte, he said, adding that the city houses the Saadi (a son of Gaddafi) battalion which includes four brigades, in addition to his armed tribe members.
(Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi and Alex Dziadosz in Ras Lanuf; Writing by Peter Millership; editing by Andrew Roche)