A rebel watches as an injured fighter is treated by an ambulance worker near… (Hussein Malla, Associated…)
RAS LANUF, Libya — Ground forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, backed up by warplanes, pushed rebels away from the coastal town of Bin Jawwad on Sunday to stop their advance on Kadafi's hometown of Sirte.
One fighter, returning wounded from Bin Jawwad to rebel-held Ras Lanuf further east, said Kadafi loyalists had ambushed advancing rebels with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Asked what he had seen, he replied: "Death." Distraught and bandaged, he would not say more.
In the rebel-held city of Benghazi, a source in the rebel movement said rebels had captured "some British special forces" who were "safe and in good hands." Earlier, Britain's defense minister said a diplomatic team was in Benghazi.
Rebels had taken Bin Jawwad, 160 km (100 miles) from Sirte, on Saturday but later withdrew, which let army units occupy local homes and set up sniper and rocket propelled grenade positions for an ambush that forced rebels back to Ras Lanuf.
"It's real fierce fighting, like Vietnam," rebel fighter Ali Othman told Reuters. "Every kind of weapon is being used. We've retreated from an ambush and we are going to regroup."
"Kadafi's forces attacked with aircraft and shot from on top of the houses," Ibrahim Boudabbous, a fighter who took part in the rebel advance.
Doctors and other staff at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 22 injured had arrived so far from fighting in Bin Jawwad. Witnesses said there were many dead and wounded who could not be reached because of the fighting, including civilians.
One man said he had seen a civilian building hit by a bomb.
"The wounded people shouted at us to get their children out. We left the dead," said Khaled Abdul Karim, a rebel fighter.
"I saw civilians shouting and screaming. They had been pushed out of their homes. I saw about 20 to 25 people who looked dead, they were civilians or rebels," said Ashraf Youssef, a rebel fighter.
Some rebels said the people of Bin Jawwad were traitors and sided with Kadafi's forces. "There has been treachery. I saw people in civilian clothes firing on us," said Ibrahim Rugrug, a rebel fighter. His comments were echoed by others.
But some in the group criticized Rugrug's accounts, saying: "They are our brothers. They were forced by Kadafi."
During the fighting, Libyan forces said they had shot down a helicopter. Three rebel fighters told Reuters they had seen it falling into the sea, but no further details were available.
On the road that leads from the coastal highway to Ras Lanuf, a poster had been put up showing the picture of a bloody body with gaping wounds, saying in English: "Bare chests versus aircrafts." Rebels have called for a "no-fly" zone to protect them from Kadafi's planes.
Dozens of rebel vehicles armed with heavy machine guns arrived in Ras Lanuf after the ambush and were regrouping.
Other rebel fighters in Ras Lanuf said they had received news of the attack by telephone from the front line. "Some rebels have been hit by snipers," one of them, Khamis Libi, said.
The government said Sunday that it had driven the rebels, who took over eastern Libya over a week ago, all the way back to their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
But the rebels were still clearly in control of Benghazi and the key oil complex of Ras Lanuf, which they took on Friday night. "They're all rebels here," a witness in Ras Lanuf said. A warplane struck Ras Lanuf on Sunday but no one was hurt.
Britain has a diplomatic team in the city of Benghazi, Defense Secretary Liam Fox said. He declined comment on a report saying Libyan rebels had captured a British special forces unit that had been on a mission to contact opposition leaders.
One rebel commander said earlier that his forces had pushed west from Bin Jawwad and controlled the town of Nawfaliyah, 120 km (74 miles) from Sirte, where they would await a call from citizens in Sirte before advancing. There were differing accounts of whether Nawfaliyah was still rebel-held.
"It's not difficult to take Sirte," Col. Bashir Abdul Gadir told Reuters. "I think 70 percent of regular people are with us there, but they have asked us not to go into Sirte fearing heavy battles. We're going to wait till they call us to let us know when they are ready."
The colonel, speaking in Ras Lanuf, said there were about 8,000 rebel soldiers between Ras Lanuf and Nawfaliyah and Kadafi's forces were reinforcing the Libyan leader's hometown of Sirte, further west down the coast, from the south.
"We have our brothers in Sirte and they won't accept this situation. They know he is a killer and stole our money and they are going to be with us," Abdul Gadir said, denying the latest Libyan government statements that it controls Ras Lanuf.
In Libya's eastern second city of Benghazi, where the uprising began, Col. Lamine Abdelwahab, a member of the rebel military council for the Benghazi area, said:
"We have received contact from members of the Gaddafda tribe (Kadafi's tribe) in Sirte who want to negotiate ... There will be no negotiations. They are asking us what we want. We say we don't want Kadafi (in power)."
Abdelwahab said soldiers belonging to the Ferjan tribes were executed for refusing to fight rebels. "They (the Ferjan tribe in Sirte) are joining the rebellion because of this atrocity. The problem is that they are unarmed. Only the Gaddafda were armed by the regime."
Kadafi may have more than 20,000 fighters in Sirte, he said, adding that the city houses the Saadi (son of Kadafi) battalion, which includes four brigades, in addition to his armed tribe members.