Libya rebels pull back under Gaddafi army fire

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2011 2:27 PM
Libya rebels pull back under Gaddafi army fire

By Angus MacSwan

NEAR BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's forces fired heavy weapons at rebels overnight and retook a small town east of the Libyan leader's home city, rebels and witnesses said.

The sporadic thud of heavy weapons could be heard on Tuesday morning outside Nawfaliyah, which lies about 150 km (90 miles) from Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace and a military base.

A Reuters correspondent saw dozens of cars carrying civilians speeding away from Nawfaliyah down the coast road east toward the town of Bin Jawad, passing a group of rebel fighters resting near their pick-ups.

One man stopped his car to berate them.

"Get yourselves up there and stop posing for pictures," he shouted, meeting little response.

The rebel fighters had raced along the coastline retaking several oil towns after Western air strikes were launched. But their charge westwards has met resistance as they neared Sirte.

"This is a problem road," said 28-year-old rebel officer Hamad al-Awani, who appeared to be in charge of the group. "Yesterday we were hit by Gaddafi so we pulled back."

He said pro-Gaddafi forces used rockets, rocket propelled grenades and medium-caliber weapons to push back the rebels who were gathered east of Sirte.

Other rebel fighters and their civilian supporters said they believed settlements on the approach to Sirte had posed a potential threat because their inhabitants backed Gaddafi.

"The Gaddafi guys hit us with Grads (rockets) and they came round our flanks," said Ashraf Mohammed, a 28-year-old rebel wearing a bandolier of machine gun bullets.

Some residents of settlements near Nawfaliyah, 120 km (75 miles) east of Sirte, had fired on retreating rebels from their houses in support of the pro-Gaddafi forces, he said.

Fleeing Nawfaliyah in a taxi, 49-year-old resident Mustafa Moussa said Gaddafi forces appeared to control the town and were backed up by armed militias formed of local residents.

"I saw them," he said. "They are firing from Nawfaliyah."

(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo; Editing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood)