Forces pound eastern oil town, Libyan rebels retreat

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 10:16 AM
Forces pound eastern oil town, Libyan rebels retreat

By Mohammed Abbas

AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels fighting the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in the east of Libya retreated from the oil town of Brega on Sunday after heavy bombardment delivered government forces another battlefield success.

"The rebels have left Brega. It is evacuated," said 33-year-old anaesthesiologist Osama Jazwi. At about 10:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) the bombardment started. "We saw, it was on the main gate," Jazwi told Reuters by telephone.

Abdul Hakim, also a resident of the bombarded town, told Reuters that the rebels had left. There were no details of the Gaddafi forces attack immediately available.

Earlier, Libyan television had said that the rebels had retreated. "Brega has been cleansed of armed gangs," a military source was quoted on Libyan state TV as saying.

At the nearby town of Ajdabiyah, retreating rebel soldiers were demoralized.

"He's out of Brega. He's on the way, maybe in half an hour his rockets will reach us here," said rebel fighter, Masoud Bwisir, at the western gate of the town.

"There's no uprising any more," said rebel Nabeel Tijouri, whose heavy machine gun had been destroyed in the fighting. "The other day we were in Ras Lanuf, then Brega, the day after tomorrow they will be in Benghazi." Further east down the strategic coastal road, Gaddafi troops had already pushed rebels from Ras Lanuf after attacking the oil port in an assault pitting tanks and planes against rebels armed with light weapons and machineguns mounted on pick-up trucks.

"Obama, you can have as much oil as you like just send in the marines to get rid of Gaddafi," said one fighter, who only gave his name as Younis, asking U.S. President Barack Obama for military assistance.

One senior rebel officer, who declined to be identified, was furious. "These guys won't listen. They are driving me crazy. There's no one in command. We had (the town of) Bin Jawad, but they just wouldn't listen, I'm being driven crazy," he said.

"The Libyan people need help. We're in danger. The east is in danger," Abdel Hadi Omar, a civilian rebel volunteer, speaking in Ajdabiyah, said.

"The Libyan people can't cope with Gaddafi's weapons. We have people but we don't have means," he told Reuters.

Brega had been alive with rumor that Gaddafi forces would be advancing shortly, mounting another overwhelming show of military force. Many families had fled.

On the outskirts, some rebels had made preparations in armed vehicles to defend the town in this barren landscape dotted with oil terminals that divides the west with Tripoli as its capital from the rebel-held east and Libya's second city of Benghazi.

WATCHFUL FROM DESERT

This correspondent had noted that the coastal road appeared thinly protected by rebel soldiers and said in Brega there was a feeling that the town could fall at any moment. Rebels said their soldiers were watchful from positions in the desert.

"This will be their next target. They will be coming here next," Rafah Farsi, 31, an oil worker and one of the few residents to remain in Brega, said on Saturday night.

"It saddens me seeing people fleeing their own homes for safety," a tearful Farsi told Reuters. "Ras Lanuf was a residential area and now it's destroyed, why?"

In the local barber's shop in Brega, a revolutionary poster celebrating the uprising against Gaddafi had been replaced by a poster of the flamboyant and autocratic leader.

Several customers said they were prepared to welcome Gaddafi forces out of self-preservation rather than loyalty.

But Ali Zwei, 41, said he would not join them along the streets. "These people have no principles. How can you wave a flag for someone who bombs his own people. If our brothers around Libya can't stand with us now, then when?" he said.

There was growing support for the scenario that Gaddafi's push east could leave him fighting a prolonged guerrilla war.

"We don't care how long it takes, five years or 10 years. The gate has been opened," said Bashir Warshfani, 30, a rebel in military fatigues and wearing a keffiyeh.

"If I die, my brother takes my place, if he dies, my neighbor. Gaddafi will only get this country when he kills us all," he said, lifting his shirt to show the entry and exit wound of a bullet that was freshly bandaged.

(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Louise Ireland)