By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan rebels pulled out of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday under heavy bombardment from Muammar Gaddafi's forces, showing up their weakness without Western air strikes to tip the scales in their favor.
The rapid reverse comes just two days after the rebels raced westwards along the all-important coastal road in hot pursuit of the government army that had its tanks and artillery demolished in five days of aerial bombardment in the town of Ajdabiyah.
Gaddafi's army first ambushed the insurgent pick-up convoy outside the "brother leader's" hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a maneuver requiring the sort of discipline entirely lacking in rag-tag rebel force.
On the offensive, government tanks and artillery have unleashed a fierce bombardment on towns and cities which has usually forced rebels to swiftly flee. That tactic appears to have worked once again in Ras Lanuf, an oil terminal town, 375 km (230 miles) east of the capital Tripoli.
"Gaddafi hit us with huge rockets. He has entered Ras Lanuf," rebel fighter Faraj Muftah told Reuters after pulling out of Ras Lanuf. "We were at the western gate in Ras Lanuf and we were bombarded," said a second fighter, Hisham.
Scores of rebel 4x4 pick-ups raced east, away from Ras Lanuf, a Reuters journalist saw.
Without Western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or even hold their positions against Gaddafi's armor.
As the rebels retreated, a Reuters correspondent heard aircraft, then a series of loud booms near Ras Lanuf, but it was unclear if the sounds were the sonic boom of the jets or bombs.
But a fighter returning from Ras Lanuf, Ahmed, also told Reuters: "The French planes came and bombed Gaddafi's forces."
France was the first member of the international coalition to announce that it had launched air strikes on Libya and rebels commonly credit most air strikes to French aircraft.
A conference of 40 governments and international bodies agreed to press on with a NATO-led aerial bombardment of Libyan forces until Gaddafi complied with a U.N. resolution to end violence against civilians.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday 115 strike sorties had been flown against Gaddafi's forces in the previous 24 hours, and 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired.
Britain said two of its Tornado fighter-bombers had attacked a government armored vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the besieged western town of Misrata.
Libya's official Jana official news agency said air strikes by forces of "the crusader colonial aggression" hit residential areas in the town of Garyan, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli, on Tuesday. It said several civilian buildings were destroyed and an unspecified number of people were wounded.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctions air power to protect Libyan civilians, not to provide close air support to rebel forces. That would also require troops on the ground to guide in the bombs, especially in such a rapidly changing war.
Air strikes alone may not be enough to stop the pendulum swing of Libyan desert civil warfare turning into a stalemate.
The United States and France have raised the possibility of arming the rebels, though both stressed no decision had yet been taken. "I'm not ruling it in, I'm not ruling it out," U.S. President Barack Obama told NBC.
It is not clear however if the amateur army of teachers, lawyers, engineers, students and the unemployed know even how to properly use the weapons they already have -- mostly looted from government arms depots.
LACK OF FOOD
Aid agencies are increasingly worried about a lack of food and medicines, especially in towns such as Misrata where a siege by Gaddafi's forces deprives them of access.
"It is difficult to even get water in from wells outside the town because of the positions of the forces," said Abdulrahman, a resident of Zintan in the west, cut off by pro-Gaddafi forces.
The U.N. refugee agency said it had reports of thousands of families living in makeshift shelters cut off from assistance.
Protection of civilians remains the most urgent goal of the air strikes, and British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Gaddafi's supporters of "murderous attacks" on Misrata.
A series of powerful explosions rocked Tripoli on Tuesday and state television said several targets in the Libyan capital had come under attack in rare daytime strikes.
(Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan, Alexander Dziadosz, Edmund Blair, Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Andrew Quinn, David Brunnstrom, Steve Holland and Alister Bull; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Giles Elgood)