A rebel fighter in the coastal city of Ajdabiya watches news footage about… (Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Ajdabiya and Benghazi, Libya — A day after a panicked retreat into Ajdabiya, a coastal city south of Benghazi, weary rebel fighters stiffened their defenses Monday while mounting a late-night assault on government forces trying to hold a strategic oil city 45 miles to the west.
Clustered around pickup trucks mounted with heavy guns, rebels in jeans and overcoats withstood three morning airstrikes by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. The bombings, aimed at a rebel barracks and ammunition depot, missed their targets but wounded several fighters and terrorized civilians huddled at home behind locked doors.
Many of the city's 120,000 residents have fled the fighting, and most shops were shuttered. Several gas stations ran out of fuel and others opened to long lines of motorists waiting in the morning chill to fill up.
In Port Brega, the oil town to the west, rebel fighters who had retreated on Sunday returned overnight to drive Kadafi forces from residential areas, according to rebels. They said government fighters retained control of the city oil complex.
Eastern Libya produces 75% of the country's oil.
After nearly a week of rapid government advances behind air, land and sea bombardments, the conflict in rebel-controlled eastern Libya stagnated along the 45-mile coastal strip between Port Brega and Ajdabiya.
Ajdabiya is by far the largest population center attacked by Kadafi after his forces stormed through three much smaller eastern towns. Rebels in the city vowed to bleed government forces with hit-and-run ambushes if they engaged in street fighting.
As the eastern rebellion entered its 27th day, Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's only Muslim member, said it opposed the no-fly zone requested by the rebels to negate Kadafi's air supremacy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the zone could be counterproductive and have dangerous consequences.
France and Britain continued to push for a no-fly zone as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other diplomats from the Group of 8 economic powers met in Paris. They discussed the idea as part of a previously scheduled ministers meeting.
Clinton, who was scheduled to travel on to Tunisia and Egypt, is expected to meet with members of the rebels' national council, but no location was announced. The council, the opposition's government-in-waiting, has been recognized by France.
In eastern Libya, Kadafi's regime seemed to struggle with supplying its forces as they tried to push farther east. On state-run TV, an offer of amnesty was made to soldiers who have defected to the rebels — an overture likely to be rejected by rebel fighters, who regularly express contempt for the longtime Libyan dictator.
The fate of Port Brega was unclear in an atmosphere of spirited propaganda on both sides.
Rebel national council spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said Kadafi "does not have the logistics or the troops to advance into Ajdabiya" and that the pro-government forces are able to hold Port Brega by day, but the rebels take charge at night.
But the rebels also suffer from supply shortages, especially gasoline for their pickup trucks and private cars. Few resupply vehicles were visible along the undefended coastal highway between Ajdabiya and the rebel stronghold in Benghazi.
Rebel fighters said they captured at least 20 pro-Kadafi fighters. They accused government forces of conducting house-to-house searches in Port Brega on Sunday night, beating and intimidating residents.
Hundreds of soldiers and special-forces units spearheaded the counterattack in Port Brega, according to Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, the rebel commander. Younis was Kadafi's interior minister and commanded government special forces before defecting last month.
Untrained volunteer rebels in Ajdabiya disagreed over the extent of participation by soldiers and commandos.
"Soldiers? Special forces? Do you see any soldiers here?" asked one fighter, waving an arm at gun-toting teachers, computer programmers and house painters guarding a desolate stretch of highway.
But other rebels said trained soldiers were indeed involved in the fight in Port Brega, though several said army regulars and commandos were not necessarily in charge.
Resentment and suspicion has seeped into the rebel ranks after battles were lost in Port Brega and another key oil complex, Ras Lanuf, last week. Some rebels said they doubted the loyalty of some Ajdabiya residents and accused them of spying for Kadafi. They kept watch for cars bearing Libyan license plates that contained the number 25, signifying Surt, the Kadafi stronghold 240 miles west.
Other fighters lashed out at reporters, blaming news photos and videos for pinpointing rebel gun trucks for government warplanes — though the vehicles rarely stay in one place for long. After weeks of proudly offering their names to reporters, they brusquely refused to provide them.