AJDABIYA, Libya – Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi suffered a significant defeat as his forces fled the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya, leaving behind a charred trail of smoking tanks and rocket systems destroyed by seven days of punishing allied airstrikes.
Rebel fighters in gun trucks raced into the nearly deserted city Saturday, firing their weapons into the air and clambering over tanks in a daylong celebration of horn-honking and flag-waving.
With Gadhafi’s forces retreating south and west, exposing more armor to allied warplanes, the question now is how many working tanks and Grad rocket systems the Libyan leader has left, and how willing his soldiers are to continue exposing themselves to airstrikes.
The thud of airstrikes could be heard south of Ajdabiya on Saturday morning. With each explosion, cheers and celebratory gunfire erupted from rebels and from Ajdabiya residents returning to their homes in the battered city, whose fall to government forces a week and a half ago helped spur the U.N. Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone and airstrikes to protect civilians.
Leaders of the 39-day rebellion in eastern Libya have said they will try to exploit the airstrikes to push Gadhafi’s forces west. Their ultimate goal, they say, is to “liberate” the capital, Tripoli, and overthrow Gadhafi’s regime – but they could face many daunting tests along the way, including his stronghold, Surt.
Atif Hasia, a spokesman in the rebel capital, Benghazi, said that rebel gun trucks pursued government forces to Port Brega, a key oil city 45 miles southwest of Ajdabiya that the rebels captured, and then lost, early this month.
Ajdabiya is a gateway to Benghazi and the junction for a desert highway east to the rebel-held port of Tobruk and the Egyptian border. The city controls access to the coastal highway west to oil refineries and terminals, and on to western Libya. A highway to Libya’s biggest oil fields runs south from Ajdabiya.
Officials in Tripoli acknowledged that Gadhafi’s forces had been forced to retreat from the coastal city.
“In the last two days the so-called coalition – we call it the crusader – they were heavily involved in the attack on the armed forces and the civilians in Ajdabiya and nearby,” said Khaled Kaim, a deputy foreign minister. “And that’s why the Libyan armed forces decided to leave Ajdabiya early this morning.”
Kaim, who called the retreat a “tactical pullback,” said the key factor was the “involvement of the coalition forces.”
In his weekly radio address, President Barack Obama described the Libyan intervention as an emergency response to save lives.
“Make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians – innocent men, women and children – have been saved,” the president said.