* Rebel forces mass in Bin Jawad, 160 km from Sirte
* Sirte received Gaddafi patronage, may have loyal backers
* Rebels fire on circling aircraft, say down a warplane
By Mohammed Abbas
BIN JAWAD, Libya, March 5 (Reuters) - Rebels in east Libya moved in a convoy of pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns and flicking V-for-victory signs on Saturday, driving closer to a Muammar Gaddafi stronghold as aircraft circled overhead.
In the small town of Bin Jawad, where rebel forces were massing about 160 km (100 miles) from Sirte, they fired off rounds at warplanes and helicopters that had followed progress of the convoy to the coastal town and swooped over them.
Most of the aircraft appeared to be simply monitoring progress but one helicopter launched a strike near Bin Jawad, witnesses said.
Rebels said they had downed one warplane near the oil town of Ras Lanuf, now well behind the frontline of the rebel force after they expelled Gaddafi’s forces on Friday. It was not possible to obtain independent confirmation.
Buoyed by Friday’s success, some rebels said a Sirte attack was imminent. But others were wary of the limitations of a rebel force made of soldiers who have deserted from Gaddafi’s ranks and volunteers who have more enthusiasm than experience.
“We’re going to attack Sirte, now,” rebel fighter Mohamed Salim told Reuters, while another fighter, Mohamed Fathi, said: “Listen, we have no organisation and no military plan. We go where we’re needed.” Both were on the way to Bin Jawad.
Rebels, who control most of eastern Libya, repulsed an attack on Wednesday on the oil town of Brega. They then chased out Gaddafi’s forces from Ras Lanuf in a firefight where rebel posts were strafed from the air and attacked from the ground.
But Sirte may prove a tougher prospect. It has long received hefty handouts from Gaddafi, who liked to host Arab and other international conferences in the coastal city, that may assure him greater loyalty. Many eastern towns fell without a fight.
Sirte is also seen by analysts as home to military forces who are staunch backers of Gaddafi’s rule. [ID:nLDE72409H]
Gaddafi, who has run Libya with an idiosyncratic ruling system for 41 years, has dismissed the idea of protests against him and has variously blamed unrest on armed gangsters, al Qaeda and youths high on Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.
Some senior rebel officials in the Libyan rebel movement have cautioned against a hasty move on Sirte, saying their forces needed more time to coordinate and regroup but said they faced a challenge in holding back often excited recruits.
“I cannot speak for the military. However we don’t have an offensive army. We don’t have the weapons for it. The nature of the weapons we have is more defensive, to protect our cities,” said Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, based in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi.
Gaddafi forces appeared to be strengthening their own defences leading up to Sirte. A civilian backer of the rebel force who said he had driven up from the west told Reuters the route had been blocked by tanks.
One major coast road runs around the Gulf of Sirte, home to some of Libya’s main oil terminals and Sirte itself. The road is surrounded by scrubby desert, with herds of camels and flocks of goats and sheep. Winds can quickly whip up sandstorms.
Rebels have an arsenal of weapons and ammunition from military bases they control in eastern towns such as Ajdabiyah.
On Saturday, rebels were seen with semi-automatic rifles, DHsK heavy machine guns for use against tanks or aircraft, 50-calibre machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers. “People’s Army,” was sprayed on one pick-up.
Gaddafi’s forces, meanwhile, have mastery of the air and plenty of heavy weaponry, such as the tanks which witnesses said were used in an offensive against the western town of Zawiyah near Tripoli.
Unable to match this air power, rebels say they want a U.N.-backed “no-fly” zone, although they say they do not want any intervention by any foreign ground forces.
Rebels said their troops shot down a warplane on Saturday. Witnesses reported the incident and also showed this Reuters correspondent footage from a mobile phone that showed at least one body and pieces of the aircraft.
The time stamp said it was recorded on Saturday afternoon.
“The plane was circling, and we started firing randomly in the air. Then we saw smoke coming from the plane,” said Ahmed Harram, a supporter of the rebel army. Others said they had also seen two dead pilots and wreckage. (Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi; Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; editing by Ralph Boulton)