By Mohammed Abbas
NEAR AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Western forces launched air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi's forces around Ajdabiyah and rebels advanced in an effort to retake the strategic town.
This correspondent, 5 km (3 miles) from Ajdabiyah, heard blasts and saw plumes of smoke on Monday rising above the town at the gateway to eastern Libya, which has highways leading to the rebel stronghold Benghazi and the northeastern oil city of Tobruk.
When a warplane was seen flying overhead, rebels cheered, flicked V-for-victory signs and advanced closer toward Ajdabiyah.
The rebel enthusiasm for the sound of jet engines was a stark contrast to their fear last week when the same roar meant attack by Muammar Gaddafi's warplanes.
"There were air strikes till early this morning. The rebels attacked at about 3 a.m. and Gaddafi's forces counter-attacked. They are still at the eastern gate of Ajdabiyah," said Ahmed al-Tir, a rebel fighter in Zueitina about 15 km (9 miles) away.
Zueitina, which has an oil terminal, had been attacked by Gaddafi's forces before Western forces launched strikes. On Monday it was back in rebel hands.
Tir said air strikes on Ajdabiyah began late on Sunday.
"The air strikes were on the eastern gate. I saw that myself and I think there were air strikes on the western gate but I only saw smoke from that direction," he said.
Others said the attacks mainly targeted the western gate.
"We are waiting for the French to bomb them. We are confident they will do this. We are also waiting for more supplies," said rebel fighter Ahmed al-Ebeidi, when asked about when the rebels would move on Ajdabiyah.
French warplanes were the first in the coalition of mostly Western powers to launch strikes on Libya on Saturday. Rebels say Gaddafi's army remains a potent force even after two nights of bombing.
"If we don't get more help from the West, Gaddafi's forces will eat us alive," rebel fighter Nouh Musmari said.
The initial allied air raids destroyed Libyan army tanks and other heavy weapons on the road to Benghazi, about 150 km (90 miles) north of Ajdabiyah. But Musmari said the government military had plenty left.
Tariq Boukhamadah, another rebel, said Gaddafi's forces between Ajdabiyah and Brega, an oil town now in the control of government forces, were also bombarded by Western forces.
Residents from Ajdabiyah said the town had been heavily damaged in fighting with Gaddafi's forces, who entered it last week with heavy armor and overpowered more lightly armed rebels reliant on 4x4 pick-ups mounted with machineguns.
"There has been a lot of destruction in Ajdabiyah, a lot of homes destroyed," said Nasser, who was driving out of the town with his family in pick-up truck.
"There are almost no civilians in Ajdabiyah. People who have left tell me many homes were destroyed by heavy bombing," said rebel fighter Idriss Kadiki.
Asked whether the rebels were depending on Western powers to advance, he said: "We are not just sitting back and waiting for the west. But the air strikes are a great help. They save time and lives."
(Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Roche)