Libyan insurgents on run, NATO strike kills 2 rebels
Libyan insurgents and civilians stampeded out of Ajdabiya Thursday on rumours that loyalist forces were at the gates of the eastern town, hours after an air strike tore into the rebels' defences.
Families packed into cars and trucks joined rebel military vehicles in a charge northeast towards the insurgent stronghold Benghazi, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) away, AFP correspondents said.
The administrator of the hospital in Ajdabiya said many civilians left in panic because of the unconfirmed rumours of advancing Gathafi forces, but that the rumours were unfounded0.
Many rebel fighters remained in the town along with doctors at the hospital, after its patients were evacuated to Benghazi as a precaution, administrator Majbali Yunis said on the telephone.
"We have moved all the injured patients from Ajdabiya to Benghazi, just in case," he said, adding that he had yet to hear any shelling of the town.
The flight began soon after rebels were hit by an air strike near the key oil town of Brega, 80 kilometres west of Ajdabiya, they said was carried out by NATO jets in which two fighters and a paramedic were killed and 10 fighters wounded.
The wounded were rushed to Ajdabiya in ambulances which were followed by a convoy of rebel military vehicles.
The fighters, already angry at what they perceive to be lack of air support from NATO, which is enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya under a UN mandate aimed at protecting civilians, vented their fury over the air strike.
"Instead of attacking Gathafi they are attacking us," said Suleiman Rifadia, a volunteer medic at the hospital.
"How come NATO is dropping bombs east of Brega when Gathafi's forces are to the west (of the town)," asked another rebel fighter, Omar Mohammed, who like two other comrades at the hospital, fell to his knees sobbing.
Saleh Faraj, a former soldier siding with the rebels, said at least three rebel tanks were hit in the air strike. The same number was given by other rebel fighters.
"There was no fighting anywhere. (The warplanes) flew back and forth and then they struck our forces," said Faraj.
"We only like (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy," he added. "We don't want NATO or anyone else."
In Brussels, NATO said it was trying to confirm the reports.
On March 24, the alliance took over from a US, French and British coalition that had been enforcing a UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya since March 19.
Rebels seized Ajdabiya on March 26, a week after coalition forces, through air strikes and cruise missiles, beat Gathafi's forces back from the gates of Benghazi.
After coming within 60 kilometres of Gathafi's hometown of Sirte on March 28, the rebels have since been steadily pushed back almost 400 kilometres by the superior fire power of Gathafi's forces, despite the coalition air strikes.
Fighting bogged down around the oil town of Brega for more than a week, but on Wednesday loyalists troops sent the rebels back about 40 kilometres towards Ajdabiya.
It was unclear Thursday exactly where the front line was or whether any rebels were making a stand against Gathafi's army.
Despite Gathafi's apparent battlefield advances, France said Thursday that it was now only a question of how his regime meets its downfall rather than whether the veteran Libyan ruler can survive in power.
"The question today is to know under what conditions Gathafi goes, not how he's going to be able to hold on to power," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told lawmakers in Paris.
Meanwhile, Washington rebuffed a letter from Gathafi to US President Barack Obama asking for an end to air strikes on his oil rich country and instead reiterated calls for the strongman to step down.
Asked about the letter, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was dismissive.
"I don't think there is any mystery about what is expected from Mr Gathafi at this time," she told reporters.
"I think that Mr Gathafi knows what he must do, there needs to be a ceasefire, his forces need to withdraw from the cities that they have forcibly taken at great violence and human cost.
"The sooner that occurs and the bloodshed ends, the better it will be for everyone," Clinton said.
The United Nations called for a halt to hostilities around Misrata, Libya's third city, saying several weeks of "heavy shelling" by Gathafi's forces had killed or wounded hundreds.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon made a new "urgent call for an immediate cessation of the indiscriminate use of military force against the civilian population," his spokesman said.
"Conditions in Misrata are especially grave, with reports of the use of heavy weapons to attack the city, where the population is trapped and unable, as a result of heavy shelling that has continued over several weeks, to receive basic supplies, including clean water, food, and medicines," he said.
Misrata, about 215 kilometres (130 miles) east of Tripoli, has seen fighting for more than 40 days since the start of the uprising against Gathafi.
Rebels in Benghazi are using fishing vessels and tugboats to send food, medicine and military supplies -- including weapons, ammunition and men -- to help defend the city.
NATO, accused of mission failure by Libyan rebels, said government troops are using civilians as human shields in Misrata, making its task more precarious.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told a news conference in Tripoli that British warplanes had bombed Libya's biggest oil field at Al-Sarir in the southeast, damaging a pipeline to Tobruk, which is under rebel control.
NATO denied the allegation.
"The only one responsible for this fire is the Gathafi regime and we know he wants to disrupt oil getting to Tobruk," said Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO mission.
A tanker left Tobruk on Wednesday carrying oil worth up to $100 million (70 million euros).