Civilians brave bombs in Libya's deserted east

Caught in the battle for Libya

The few civilians not to have fled Ajdabiya amid the combat between rebels and forces loyal to Moamer Gathafi are hunkered in their homes, but many have died in the conflict.
The front line in this coastal desert region is halfway between the oil port of Brega and Ajdabiya, a city of 80,000 residents south of the rebel-stronghold of Benghazi, in an expanse of sand where villages are few and far between.
But at least eight civilians have lost their lives, casualties of two days of fierce fighting, according to rebels and medics.
Mahmud Abidi, 38, reached the green metal arch marking Ajdabiya's western boundary with orders "not to go any further".
"I came to try to get news of my mother and brothers. They stayed in Brega," said this oil refinery worker and Brega resident who sent his family to Ajdabiya.
"They managed to call me yesterday. They are locked in at home. All the neighbours have fled. They are afraid."
Brega and Ras Lanuf, some 130 kilometres (80 miles) to the west, are primarily oil towns complete with refineries, export terminals for southern oil deposits.
Tens of thousands of employees, the majority of them expatriates, evacuated the region hastily when clashes broke out six weeks ago.
Hundreds of small villas surrounded by high walls stood empty. When they held the town, rebels posted men at the entrance gates, controlling who came and went.
Inside, in a house where a team of AFP reporters spent the night, everything remained in its place, frozen in time: the fridge was still full, dirty laundry strewn on the bathroom floor, a DVD in its reader ready to play.
Elsewhere, the majority of residents opted out of the conflict and took flight. In the west, near Sirte, Gathafi's hometown, civilians sought to escape oncoming rebels.
Meanwhile in the east, towards Ajdabiya, it was the cannon fire of Gathafi forces that cleared villages as the front line shifted in the desert like a sand dune.
Ahmad Muftar, 40, piled his family into an old Peugeot.
"In principle, we are safe, our village is 10 kilometres (six miles) into the mountain," he said. "But Gathafi's men cut the water supply and there has been no electricity since yesterday. The women are scared. We are going to Benghazi."
In just two days of fighting this week, eight people -- from two different families -- died in the hamlet of Argub, south of Brega, according to Dr. Isam Abu Harba, emergency physician at Ajdabiya's hospital.
The circumstances of their death are unclear amid conflicting versions of their fate.
Ajdabiya, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the front line, became a ghost town. Only a few silhouettes were visible along its sandy paths. Among them, Brahim Mussa, 56, a retired school teacher who donned a tanned, hooded tunic.
"God decides. I am only afraid of him. I pray at the mosque," he said.
The majority of his neighbours were long gone but not he nor the six members of his family. He did not budge when the town fell briefly to Tripoli's forces, although bullets pockmark the walls of his home.
His 20-year-old neighbour Mohammed Abdallah was less fatalistic.
"If they come from the western gate, we'll grab everything and go. Till then we stay."
The deafening sound of explosions travelled on the wind. Mohammed yelled at a little boy, running barefoot on the street, to get back inside immediately.