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 town in Libya's east.
A Reuters correspondent on the road a few kilometers east of Ajdabiyah heard three explosions and saw large plumes of black smoke rise over its eastern entrance.
A rocket that seemed to be fired from a rebel truck then hit the eastern entrance, sending a fireball into the sky. Black smoke also began rising from the western gate.
Gaddafi forces had earlier fired shells to stem a rebel advance on the town, but rebel commanders said they could make a new push after the airstrikes and rocket attack.
"The eastern gate has fallen and we are sending a team to check before moving forward," rebel colonel Hamad al-Hasi told Reuters near the town.
Bin Moussa, a man helping the rebel fighters with food and logistics, said three Gaddafi fighters gave themselves up and emerged from Ajdabiyah waving a white flag. He said they were taken to Benghazi, where the rebels have their headquarters.
British warplanes struck government military vehicles in Ajdabiyah overnight and rebels arrived on Friday on trucks with multiple rocket launchers and pick-ups with heavy machine guns.
Ibrahim Faraj, a member of the rebel military council, told Reuters local tribal elders had held talks with Gaddafi's forces in Ajdabiyah early on Friday and demanded they surrender.
"The elders 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.
"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.
The rebels also appeared to be better organised than in previous days, with new roadblocks heading toward Ajdabiyah watched over by troops communicating with each other by phone.
Rebel commanders at the front were using walkie-talkies instead of the mobile phones they had in the past.
Earlier on Friday, rebel officers were optimistic they would rout Gaddafi's forces in Ajdabiyah.
The stand-off "all ends after prayers today," said Hasi.
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 Philippa Fletcher)