By Mohammed Abbas
NEAR AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels massed for a new push on Ajdabiyah on Friday and exchanged artillery fire with Muammar Gaddafi's forces holding the strategic eastern town.
A Reuters correspondent said the rebel fighters fired steady bursts of artillery from their positions on a road east out of Ajdabiyah.
Gaddafi forces in the town fired back two or three shells a minute which exploded in the desert either side of the road.
The rebels had brought in trucks carrying multiple rocket launchers and pick-ups mounted with heavy machine guns after British Tornado warplanes struck government military vehicles in Ajdabiyah overnight.
Ibrahim Faraj, a member of the rebel military council, told Reuters that local tribal elders had held talks with Gaddafi's forces in Ajdabiyah early on Friday and demanded they surrender.
"The rebels said 'you must withdraw and leave your weapons and you will not be harmed'. They refused. That is why we plan to advance with heavy weapons," said Faraj.
Rebel forces stopped reporters getting close to the town.
Winning back Ajdabiyah would be the biggest victory for the eastern rebels since their initial push westwards went into reverse two weeks ago and the better equipped Gaddafi forces drove them back toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
It would also suggest that allied airstrikes, carried out with the stated aim of protecting civilians, are handing new momentum to the rebel fighters.
The rebels also appeared to be better organized than in previous days, with new roadblocks heading toward Ajdabiyah watched over by troops communicating with each other by phone.
"This (the British strikes) will weaken their (Gaddafi's) forces and more importantly their morale. We expect Ajdabiyah will be liberated today or tomorrow," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in Benghazi.
He denied the rebels at the frontline were negotiating with the Gaddafi forces for them to pull back and said they had been told they must lay down their weapons and surrender.
The stand-off in Ajdabiyah "all ends after prayers today," rebel colonel Hamad al-Hasi told Reuters near the town. "The talks failed."
He said there were clashes in Ajdabiyah on Friday and the rebels were cutting off Gaddafi's forces stationed at the town's eastern and western gates. Al Arabiya television reported heavy clashes at the western entrance.
AIRSTRIKES SPUR ON REBELS
Around 2,000 worshippers attended Friday prayers outside the rebel headquarters on the Benghazi seafront, where buildings were bedecked with rebel red, black and green flags.
The imam leading prayers thanked the allies for their intervention and called for solidarity with residents of the besieged cities of Misrata and Zintan.
The presence near Ajdabiyah of authoritative and knowledgeable senior rebel officers like Hasi and Faraj suggested the rebel command based in the eastern city of Benghazi is taking more direct control over the front line.
The rebels, most of them with little military experience, had advanced hundreds of kilometers east from Benghazi early in the fighting but were beaten back to the city's outskirts by Gaddafi's better armed forces.
"The airstrikes last night have spurred us on. That is the number one reason for the advance. The second reason is the failure of talks," said Faraj.
Spokesman Gheriani voiced concern about the number of civilian casualties they may find in the town if they succeed in pushing back Gaddafi's forces. "I am very apprehensive that we will find a great crime has been committed there."
(Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood)