As Rebels Retreat, Allied Warplanes Are Heard Over Libya

Outside Brega, Libya – With the momentum of ground combat tilting in favor of forces loyal to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, rebels seeking to oust him embarked on a large-scale withdrawal from the coastal oil town of Brega on Wednesday — the latest in a string of apparent setbacks.

Rebel forces also said Colonel Qaddafi’s troops had pushed them out of another oil town, Ras Lanuf, further west.

On the approaches to Brega, hundreds of cars and small trucks heading east clogged the highway as rebel forces pulled back toward Ajdabiyah, recaptured from loyalist troops only days ago. Some rebels said Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, pushing eastward from Ras Lanuf, were within 10 miles of Brega. The retreating force seemed rudderless, a sea of vehicles and fighters armed with rudimentary weapons that have proved no match for Colonel Qaddafi’s better trained and better armed forces.

As rebels clustered at a gas station and small mosque between Brega and Ajdabiyah, a single artillery shell or rocket exploded several hundred yards away, causing the rebels, who were chanting “God is great” and waving assault rifles, to jump into their vehicles and speed eastward.

The loyalist advance may expose Colonel Qaddafi’s forces to airstrikes by the NATO-led allied coalition, military analysts said. News reports said warplanes were heard overhead three times on Wednesday, followed by a series of explosions, suggesting that coalition warplanes had resumed bombing the pro-Qaddafi units.

Last week along the same highway, allied airstrikes pounded loyalist forces, enabling the rebels to undertake a lightning advance that carried them toward the Libyan leader’s hometown of Surt — a symbolic and strategically important objective on the long, coastal highway leading to Tripoli.

But the advance stalled when pro-Qaddafi forces counterattacked and the rebels fell into a chaotic retreat from the town of Bin Jawwad toward Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.

The loyalist advance on Wednesday was the latest swing of the pendulum as pro-Qaddafi forces sought to capitalize on their gains, pressing toward Ras Lanuf. Reuters quoted rebel forces as saying they were pulling out of Ras Lanuf after they came under a barrage of rocket fire from Qaddafi loyalists.

The allies launched the strikes after the United Nations Security Council authorized military intervention to protect civilians — a decision that Western leaders say spared the rebels looming defeat as pro-Qaddafi forces closed on Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital. Military analysts said that even after days of airstrikes, loyalist forces have enough resources to defend his urban strongholds like the coastal city of Surt where the dense civilian population precludes air attacks.

But as they extend their lines east along the coast toward the rebel redoubts, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces risk opening themselves to renewed allied strikes from above. Indeed, these analysts said, Western planners may be hoping that loyalist forces will find themselves caught in a vice, with the Colonel Qaddafi pushing them forward and the airstrikes forcing them back until they abandon him.

A new element also entered the military campaign on Wednesday when a prominent human rights watchdog urged Colonel Qaddafi’s forces to abandon the alleged use of landmines, outlawed in many parts of the world.

In a statement from Benghazi on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have laid both antipersonnel and antivehicle mines.

“Libya should immediately stop using antipersonnel mines, which most of the world banned years ago,” said Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Qaddafi’s forces should ensure that mines of every type that already have been laid are cleared as soon as possible to avoid civilian casualties.”

The statement said two dozen antivehicle mines and three dozen antipersonnel mines had been found in the coastal town of Ajdabiyah, now in rebel hands, after government forces held it from March 17 until March 27. Authorities in Tripoli had no immediate comment on the statement.

This article “As Rebels Retreat, Allied Warplanes Are Heard Over Libya” originally appeared at The New York Times.