By Mohammed Abbas
UQAYLAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan troops forced rebels to retreat overnight from the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, pushing the front line eastwards, and the rebel council's chief said more volunteers were ready to fight.
The front line now stands between the rebel-held town of Uqaylah and Ras Lanuf, where oil storage tanks were hit during Friday's fighting. Rebels blamed an air strike but the government denied hitting the oil plant.
Libya's rebels said there were more fighters standing by.
"The volunteers now at the front are less than 30 percent of the people who are willing to go and fight, our people are ready and determined to fight Gaddafi's forces," Libyan National Council chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil told Reuters in an interview.
It was clear the rebels had retreated from Ras Lanuf, but with a rapidly-moving battlefield, just how far was uncertain.
"We're out of Ras Lanuf. They've beaten us back with bombardment," rebel Colonel Bashir Abdul Qadr told Reuters. "We've moved back 20 km (12 miles) from last night because we are also afraid the refinery will explode."
"Yesterday evening there was heavy bombing from Libyan war planes. This bombardment made us take positions back from Ras Lanuf, but not 20 km as we heard, we are 3 km (away), rebel Colonel Hamed al-Hasi told Arabiya news network, adding:
"I advise journalists not to enter the field of operations because we cannot guarantee their safety."
THREE AIR STRIKES
There were three air strikes close to a checkpoint near the town of Uqaylah, (40 km, 25 miles from Ras Lanuf) unsettling the rebels who moved off the road and into the desert.
The colonel told Reuters that, according to engineers, the refinery at Ras Lanuf will blow up in the next five days due to the damage sustained in the operation to retake the town with a fierce land, sea and air assault.
This could not be independently corroborated.
Rebels, armed mainly with anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and light weapons, fought back to hold Ras Lanuf, about 590 km (370 miles) east of Tripoli, but were overwhelmed by Gaddafi's firepower.
"The city is a ghost town. The presence of civilians there is very difficult because of the intensity of the bombardment. Gaddafi's forces are still present in Ras Lanuf, ... Under the aerial cover, they seized the opportunity yesterday," said al-Hasi, adding:
"The battles are far from the oil areas, the battles are on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf."
Some 4x4 vehicles with heavy weapons moved back toward Ras Lanuf from the front line 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.
The colonel was keen to boost the morale of a group of about 40 troops, saying: "Anyone who is willing to fight and become a martyr, come and fight!" To which the fighters replied: "Allahu Akbar! (God is greatest!)"
"BLINK AND WE ARE BACK"
Some of the fighters lay on the side of the road in the sun waiting for a chance to push forward into Ras Lanuf. They did not seem to be concerned about having to fall back and said that the conflict involved a lot of advancing and retreating.
"Ras Lanuf is not Gaddafi's at all," said Mohamed Hassan, 22, a rebel fighter. "Blink and we are back in again," he said.
Another rebel with Hassan, when asked if he felt tired, said: "We have been tired of Gaddafi for 41 years. Now we are rid of him we are not tired at all."
Many rebels spread into the desert away from the strategic Mediterranean coastal road. At the Uqaylah checkpoint, one rebel volunteer, said: "We can't guarantee your safety ahead."
On the question of securing arms supply from abroad, Abdel Jalil, a former justice minister, said:
"Some people (in the revolution) in their capacity are making efforts to get some weapons, if a no-fly zone and restrictions on Gaddafi's ships are not imposed, Libya's civilians are going to suffer."
Prior to being pushed back at Ras Lanuf, the rebels had made one of their objectives capturing Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte.
When asked if it was possible to take Sirte without foreign help, Abdel Jalil said:
"People in Sirte and other cities such as Tripoli are with the revolution, but they have been under siege. Gaddafi forces have been surrounding these cities and we are going there just to break the siege, not to do more."
If Gaddafi forces reached the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya's second city, "this would mean the death of half a million," he said.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Tom Pfeiffer; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Matthew Jones)