AJDABIYA, Libya – The front line for control of Libya moved to its easternmost point in three weeks on Saturday as forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi stormed this rebel-held town in a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks.
Rebels who swept in to defend Ajdabiya, 100 miles from the opposition capital of Benghazi, were hit by fire from pro-Gadhafi snipers and a rain of artillery shells. Street battles raged for hours inside the town, which was largely empty of unarmed civilians.
There was no sign of NATO aircraft during the battle, though a rebel spokesman said aircraft had hit Gadhafi positions before dawn. Airstrikes on Gadhafi loyalists have been crucial to rebel military successes.
Libyan state television showed what it claimed were live images of Gadhafi supporters celebrating in the streets of Ajdabiya, though by nightfall rebels said that they had chased most of the loyalists out of town. Fighting continued near the town’s western gate, which Gadhafi’s forces have pummeled since Thursday with missile strikes and mortar rounds.
Rebels claimed that they had captured three Gadhafi loyalists, including a high-ranking military officer, but those reports couldn’t be confirmed.
The battle appeared to show a rebel movement hanging by a thread, barely able to retain a key gateway to their capital, a city of some 1 million people. The ragtag opposition forces seemed surprised when Gadhafi’s fighters – riding in about 30 four-wheel-drive vehicles, some equipped with missile launchers – attacked Ajdabiya from three directions, including the southern desert and two western roads.
Switching to civilian vehicles and light weapons, the Gadhafi forces are now using the same equipment as the rebels, confusing NATO air crews and leading to two mistaken NATO airstrikes on rebel positions that killed at least 18 people in the last week.
A spokesman for rebel forces said that the opposition had set an ambush for Gadhafi’s forces, luring them into Ajdabiya “like cheese for the rats,” but the lines of vehicles fleeing the town and at least one man killed by a bullet wound belied that analysis.
Elsewhere in Libya, NATO said that its aircraft destroyed ammunition stockpiles east of the capital, Tripoli, that Gadhafi’s forces were using to shell civilians in the rebel-held western city of Misrata and other civilian areas.
Speaking in Naples, Italy, Lt. Gen. Charlie Bouchard, commander of NATO forces in Libya, said that airstrikes also hit armored vehicles belonging to Gadhafi’s forces, including in one area near Misrata where the vehicles were being loaded onto transporters headed for populated areas.
“We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship,” Bouchard said.
“This type of behavior violates the principles of international law and will not be tolerated,” he said.