Libyan rebels clinched their hold on the east and seized back a key city on Saturday after decisive international airstrikes sent Moammar Gadhafi’s forces into retreat, shedding their uniforms and ammunition as they fled.
Ajdabiya’s initial loss to Gadhafi may have ultimately been what saved the rebels from imminent defeat, propelling the U.S. and its allies to swiftly pull together the air campaign now crippling Gadhafi’s military.
Its recapture gives President Barack Obama a tangible victory just as he faces criticism for bringing the United States into yet another war.
In Ajdabiya, drivers honked in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired guns into the air and danced on burned-out tanks that littered the road.
Their hold on the east secure again, the rebels promised to resume their march westward that had been reversed by Gadhafi’s overwhelming firepower.
Rebel fighters already had pushed forward to the outskirts of the oil port of Brega and were hoping to retake the city on Sunday, opposition spokeswoman Iman Bughaigis said, citing rebel military commanders.
“Without the planes we couldn’t have done this. Gadhafi’s weapons are at a different level than ours,” said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya. “With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing.”
The Gadhafi regime acknowledged the airstrikes had forced its troops to retreat and accused international forces of choosing sides.
“This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces,” Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in Tripoli. “They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war.”
Ajdabiya’s sudden capture by Gadhafi’s troops on March 15 — and their move toward the rebel capital of Benghazi — gave impetus to the U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader’s military.
The Pentagon said U.S.-led forces pounded Libyan ground troops and other targets along the Mediterranean coast and in Tripoli, Ajdabiya and the western contested city of Misrata in strikes overnight, but they provided no details on what was hit. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Darryn James, says there were no Tomahawk cruise missile strikes overnight.
Altogether, the Pentagon said the U.S. military launched nearly 100 strikes overnight, just slightly higher than a day ago.
Airstrikes Friday on the city’s eastern and western gates forced Gadhafi’s troops into hasty retreat. Inside a building that had served as their makeshift barracks and storage, hastily discarded uniforms were piled in the bathroom and books on Islamic and Greek history and fake pink flowers were scattered on the floor.
Rebels swept into the city and hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of anti-aircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower. Later in the day, other rebels drove around and around a traffic circle, jubilantly firing an assortment of weapons in the air — anti-aircraft weapons, AK-47s, RPGs.
Outside the city, Muftah el-Zewi was driving away, his back seat loaded with plastic bags filled with blankets and clothes that he picked up after going to his home in Ajdabiya for the first time in days.
“We went and checked it out, drove around the neighborhood and it looked OK. Hopefully we’ll come back to stay tomorrow,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power.
The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.
Pentagon officials say that forces loyal to Gadhafi are a potent threat to civilians. And they are looking at plans to expand the firepower and airborne surveillance systems in the military campaign, including using the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors, as well as helicopters and drones.
Former Libyan ambassador to the United States Ali Aujali called Libya a unique situation.
The government’s grip has even tightened in Tripoli, its seat of power, where almost nightly airstrikes have hammered military bases, missile storage and even Gadhafi’s residential compound.