By Mohammed Abbas
NEAR AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Western warplanes flew over Ajdabiyah on Friday and rebels said they had bombed Muammar Gaddafi's forces holding the strategic eastern town.
A Reuters correspondent on the road a few kilometers east of Ajdabiyah heard three explosions and saw large black plumes of smoke rise over its eastern entrance. Gaddafi's forces had been firing shells to hold off an advance by rebel forces.
"I am waiting for the jets to finish bombing before going in," said rebel fighter Ahmed al-Misrati.
The rebels had brought trucks with multiple rocket launchers and pick-ups with heavy machine guns after British warplanes struck government military vehicles in Ajdabiyah overnight.
But they failed to make much headway by mid-afternoon and the assault appeared to have lost momentum.
"We have men further up front and I am waiting for orders from them," said rebel soldier Muammar, who did not give his family name or the orders he was waiting for.
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.
Earlier on Friday, rebel officers were optimistic they would rout Gaddafi's forces in Ajdabiyah.
The stand-off "all ends after prayers today," rebel colonel Hamad al-Hasi told Reuters near the town.
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, called for solidarity with residents of besieged cities further west and said the uprising would triumph.
"The new Libya must be democratic. We do not need a new Gaddafi," he said.
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 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)