BENGHAZI, Libya – Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi mounted a punishing assault from two directions Tuesday and overwhelmed lightly armed rebels in Ajdabiya, the last rebel city blocking the coastal highway to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, just 95 miles to the north.
Many rebel volunteers who had vowed to make a final, bloody stand in Ajdabiya fled the onslaught in gun trucks, firing futilely at the sky as government warplanes bombarded the city and tank rounds and rockets exploded in civilian neighborhoods.
The onslaught by government troops was another sign that momentum had shifted to Gadhafi, who has relied on warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery to crush a monthlong rebellion against his 42-year dictatorship. It came as Western diplomats meeting in Paris again failed to reach an agreement on whether to impose a “no-fly” zone designed to negate his air supremacy.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, whose government had advocated aggressively confronting Gadhafi, told French radio flatly that government forces had gained the upper hand.
“Had we used military force last week to neutralize a number of runways and the few dozen planes he has, then perhaps the reversal which is currently taking place to the detriment of the opposition would not have happened,” he said. “But that’s the past. … We have perhaps missed a chance to restore the balance.”
In Ajdabiya, fleeing residents joined retreating rebels on the clogged coastal highway to Benghazi. Some rebels were pinned inside the city of 120,000 by bombardments on both the western and eastern approaches to Ajdabiya.
Libyans in the capital, Tripoli, fired weapons into the air in celebration after state television announced the capture of Ajdabiya. The broadcast declared that the city “has been cleansed of the mercenaries and terrorist gangs linked to al-Qaida,” which the Gadafi regime blames for the uprising.
Gadhafi predicted imminent victory, telling the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that rebels had two choices: “Surrender or run away.”
The assault on Ajdabiya followed an apparent government victory over rebel opposition in Zawara, a city 30 miles from the Tunisian border. Zawara was the last rebel-held city west of Tripoli.