* Gaddafi forces step up counter-attack east of Sirte
* Some residents side with Gaddafi forces - witnesses
* “There are no commanders,” says rebel fighter
(Updates rebel positions, adds rebel spokeswoman)
By Angus MacSwan
BIN JAWAD, Libya, March 29 (Reuters) - Libyan rebel fighters appealed for Western air strikes on Tuesday after a hail of machinegun and rocket fire sent them into a chaotic retreat from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces east of his home town of Sirte.
Rebels waiting on the open desert road leaped behind dunes and mounds of earth and shot at Gaddafi forces as they arrived.
As the onslaught grew, the insurgents ran to their pick-up trucks and sped off eastwards down the road to Bin Jawad, 150 km (100 miles) east of Sirte.
Bullets zipped overhead and shells landed on and near the road as the rebels, poorly trained and without a firm command structure, retreated more than 10 km (six miles).
“A tactical withdrawal has taken place. This is just to take our troops out of reach of Colonel Gaddafi’s militias and mercenary troops,” said Iman Bugaigis, spokeswoman for the rebel national council.
“Bin Jawad is still under free Libya’s control but just west of Bin Jawad is the front line of the fight,” she told a news conference in the main rebel stronghold Benghazi.
Rebels said they regrouped on the eastern outskirts of Bin Jawad and fired at the Gaddafi forces, stalling their advance.
“The front line is in Bin Jawad. Gaddafi has not taken control of Bin Jawad,” said rebel fighter Abdul Salam al-Assadi, 25, a former government employee from Benghazi.
He called on Western countries for air strikes on Gaddafi positions, saying enemy rocket launchers meant they were unable to launch a counter-attack and could lose more terrain.
Fifty-year-old engineer Mohamed al-Oman said: “Yesterday we made gains ... because of the coalition air strikes. Today there were no air strikes so Gaddafi took advantage and used his rocket launchers.”
Rebel fighters voiced defiance despite the latest rout by Gaddafi’s better armed and organised troops.
Adil Serhani, 30, had a goat in the back of his pick-up and said he planned to slaughter the animal when, “God willing”, the rebels conquer Sirte.
But he admitted the rebels lacked leadership at the front. “The commanders are in the barracks. There are no commanders”.
The rebel fighters had raced along the Mediterranean coast retaking several oil terminals after Western warplanes began air strikes on Gaddafi positions in the east and west of the North African desert country on March 19.
Their westward charge ended as they neared Sirte and Gaddafi forces unleashed rockets, rocket propelled grenades and medium calibre weapons to drive them back to the village of Nawfaliyah.
With much of the Sirte-area population thought to be loyal to Gaddafi -- most of his Gaddadfa tribe is from there -- air strikes ostensibly designed to protect civilians could be harder for Western military officials to justify in the case of Sirte.
Insurgents said they faced open hostility from some civilians as they approached the city.
Residents had fired on the retreating rebels from their houses in support of pro-Gaddafi forces, said Ashraf Mohammed, a 28-year-old rebel wearing a bandolier of machine gun bullets.
Fleeing Nawfaliyah in a taxi, 49-year-old resident Mustafa Moussa said Gaddafi forces appeared to control the town and were backed up by armed militias formed of local residents.
“This is a problem road,” said 28-year-old officer Hamad al-Awani, who appeared to be in charge of one group of rebels. (Writing by Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, editing by Mark Heinrich)