The Guardian, By Xan Rice
April 17, 2011
Muammar Gaddafi’s forces mounted a heavy assault on Libyan rebels holding the key town of Ajdabiya on Sunday in a sign that the regime is stepping up efforts to regain territory in the east of the country.
Explosions were heard for several hours in the morning, forcing some of the few remaining families to flee to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 90 miles away.
Dozens of vehicles, some of them rebel trucks with heavy machine guns mounted in the back, were seen leaving Ajdabiya for Benghazi. Rebels were also seen laying anti-tank mines at the eastern gate of the city, highlighting their fears that Gaddafi’s forces could retake the town.
In the besieged town of Misrata in the west, rebels said that six civilians were killed and dozens injured on Sunday in attacks by Gaddafi’s forces.
Misrata has been under heavy attack for seven weeks, with hundreds of civilians killed in the effort to rout the rebels, who are reportedly better organised and disciplined than in the east of the country. Witnesses in the city have backed up reports from Human Rights Watch that Libyan government troops have been using cluster bombs as part of their offensive. The government has denied this.
Ajdabiya in the east is situated at a strategic highway junction and has changed hands several times since the conflict began. Last month, Gaddafi’s troops encircled the town with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and heavy artillery. Nato air strikes enabled the rebels to more or less hold their positions, but their inexperience and inferior firepower has prevented them from advancing west towards Tripoli.
Assisted by sandstorms, which have provided cover for air assaults, Gaddafi’s forces have increased their attacks near Ajdabiya’s western gate in recent days, mostly through long-distance shelling.
On Saturday, eight rebels were killed and 27 injured on the road leading west to the oil port of Brega, according to Dr GS Mohamed, the head surgeon at Ajdabiya’s hospital. Many of the casualties occurred when a shell struck one of the rebels’ improvised rocket launchers outside the town, causing horrific burn injuries, Mohamed said.
“On the open road, Gaddafi’s troops are stronger and better trained. Our [rebel] forces shoot and stay in the same place, which is why they got hit yesterday. But in the town, which we know, we have the advantage.”
During a lull in the fighting around midday, more than 20 rebel vehicles – pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns – sped into Ajdabiya to provide reinforcements.
“Gaddafi is trying to clear the city before sending his troops in,” said Ahmed Shomi, 30, a rebel volunteer driving a battered pickup with no windscreen. “But with God’s help we will never allow that.”
As the humanitarian situation there and in other towns worsens, international development secretary Andrew Mitchell is to travel to the United Nations on Monday for urgent talks. He said he would discuss plans to improve lead times and access for medical supplies and other aid.
At the same time, David Cameron denied that a joint letter he published with the presidents of the US and France saying that Gaddafi would have to go meant that regime change was main goal of the international allies’ mission. In an interview with Sky News, the prime minister said that the three men had merely been expressing what was on every world leader’s mind.
Cameron said that there was “no question of an invasion or an occupation” under the terms of the UN resolution and that this was making fighting the conflict “more difficult in many ways” for the coalition. But he said that the allies were supplying the rebels with non-lethal material, such as body armour and communications equipment.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Colonel Gaddafi is still intent on murdering people in Misrata and taking control of that large city and also pushing towards Benghazi, where I’m sure, if he ever got there, there would be a bloodbath,” Cameron said.
“We should be taking all the necessary steps to stop that from happening and to save civilian life.”LIBYA