BIN JAWWAD, Libya – Rebel forces bore down Monday on Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold where a brigade headed by one of the Libyan leader’s sons was digging in to defend the city and setting the stage for a bloody and possibly decisive battle.
The opposition made new headway in its rapid advance westward through oil towns and along stretches of empty desert highway toward Sirte and beyond to the big prize: the capital, Tripoli.
But the rebels remain woefully outgunned by Gadhafi’s forces, who swept the insurgents from positions in eastern Libya until the international intervention forced government troops to withdraw.
Rebels acknowledged they could not have held their ground without international air and cruise missile strikes. Libya state television reported new NATO airstrikes after nightfall, targeting “military and civilian targets” in the cities of Garyan and Mizda about 40 and 90 miles, respectively, from Tripoli.
NATO insisted that it was seeking only to protect civilians and not to give air cover to an opposition march. But the airstrikes are clearly enabling rebels to push toward the final line of defense on the road to the capital.
There was growing criticism from Russia and other countries that the international air campaign is overstepping the bounds of the U.N. resolution that authorized it. The complaints came at a critical transition in the campaign from a U.S. to a NATO command.
On Monday, rebel fighters moved about 70 miles west from the coastal oil terminal and town of Ras Lanouf to just beyond the small town of Bin Jawwad, where their push was halted by government fire along the exposed desert highway and the heavily mined entrance to Sirte.
The rebels were just 60 miles from Sirte, the bastion of Gadhafi’s power in the center of the country.
Take control of that, and there’s only the largely rebel-held city of Misrata – and then empty desert – in the way of the capital. Sirte could therefore see some of the fiercest fighting of the rebellion, which began on Feb. 15.
Over the years, Gadhafi has made Sirte effectively Libya’s second capital, building up what had been a quiet agricultural community into a city of 150,000 with lavish conference halls where Arab and African summits were held.
Fighting in such a densely populated area is likely to complicate the rebels’ advance and add to the ambiguity of the NATO-led campaign, authorized by a Security Council resolution to take all necessary measures to protect civilians.