BENGHAZI, Libya – Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi pushed deeper into rebellious eastern Libya on Sunday, overrunning an important oil town while forcing lightly armed rebels back toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Rebel fighters fled Port Brega, site of a strategic refinery complex and oil terminal, under heavy bombardment and tried to hold back government forces rapidly advancing on Ajdabiya, about 95 miles south of Benghazi.
The fall of Port Brega is a serious blow to the rebel force, facing a government onslaught that has loosened the opposition’s grip on eastern Libya.
Just eight days ago, rebel fighters routed pro-Gadhafi forces in Port Brega and another strategic oil city, Ras Lanouf, and spoke of taking the battle to Tripoli, the capital, far to the west.
The steady advance of Gadhafi’s fighters behind airstrikes and rocket attacks puts pressure on rebel leaders in Benghazi to stop or slow the government’s assault up the Mediterranean coastal highway before it reaches their city.
Panicked rebels in Ajdabiya blocked reporters from driving farther southwest toward Port Brega. Many said they lacked the firepower to slow the government’s assault.
“Gadhafi is on his way to Ajdabiya,” said Masoud Bwisir, a carwash owner fighting for the rebels, from the city’s western gate. “How can we stop him? He has tanks, planes. He fires at us from boats in the sea. Our guns are weak against him.”
Rockets slammed down late Sunday afternoon on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya as a cleric raised a bullhorn and called for warriors among the boys and young men in the city.
“If you have a weapon and want to fight, please come,” he said as rebels dug trenches and positioned anti-aircraft guns. “But you need your own weapon. We have run out.”
State-run TV said Port Brega, about 120 miles south of Benghazi, had been “cleansed of terrorists gangs of mercenaries.” It added: “All citizens are requested to go back to work and to their normal lives.”