AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched air strikes on the rebel-held Libyan town of Ajdabiyah on Monday after sweeping east, and the government offered an amnesty to any rebels who returned to army ranks.
Rebels in the east have urged the international community to impose a no-fly zone to ground the warplanes that have driven them back towards their stronghold of Benghazi, losing control of oil towns as they retreated.
Hammered by tanks, planes and heavy armour, the lightly armed rebels who depend on 4x4 pick ups mounted with big machine guns have criticised the West for not responding swiftly to help halt the bloodshed.
“Everyone here is puzzled as to how many casualties the international community judges to be enough for them to help,” Essam Gheriani, who speaks on behalf of the rebel February 17th coalition in Benghazi, told Reuters. “It is shameful.”
Rebels had advanced as far west as Bin Jawad, about 525 km (330 miles) from Tripoli, before Gaddafi’s forces launched a counter-attack on March 6 that has thrown them back about 150 km (95 miles) to Brega, whose fate was still not clear on Monday.
When one rebel in Ajdabiyah was asked if Gaddafi’s opponents controlled Brega, he only said: “God willing, with God’s help.”
Another, Idriss Kadiki, said there was still fighting in the town and rebel forces had surrounded them after Gaddafi’s forces landed some forces by sea, a tactic rebels have said government troops have used in other coastal towns.
“Some of them (government troops) have been killed and some have been captured. But they are still in Brega. It is still dangerous and there is still fighting but today we will squeeze them hard,” he said.
A third rebel fighter, who gave his name only as Nasser, said rebels withdrew from Brega under withering air strikes and then at least 11 government tanks entered. But he said rebels used the cover of night to encircle them.
He said Gaddafi’s troops had broken out eastwards. “They are 15 km (9 miles) outside Brega on the east. If you go near them, they fire at you. We have taken 62 prisoners,” he said.
This correspondent was prevented by rebels from venturing out of Ajdabiyah and towards Brega to confirm the report.
Libyan state television reported on Monday that the armed forces would extend an amnesty to every soldier who “returns showing regret and hands over his weapon”. Many Libyan troops, particularly in the east, switched to the rebel camp shortly after the revolt against Gaddafi’s rule erupted in mid-February.
Gaddafi’s forces have followed a similar pattern as they have driven rebels from the eastern oil ports of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf.
Warplanes swoop in, stoking fear in the enthusiastic but inexperienced rebel ranks. Then Gaddafi’s land forces start a bombardment of rebel positions with mortars, rockets and other weapons, moving forward incrementally as the attack builds.
Rebels also say government troops have used gunboats to pound rebel positions from the sea and to land troops.
Residents have fled each town as government forces approached, although none are heavily populated.
On Monday, Gaddafi’s forces moved further east beyond Brega to Ajdabiya with fresh air strikes. Ajdabiyah lies about 140 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi.
“The plane came round four times and bombed four times,” rebel fighter Abdel Qadr Hejazi said in the town where a Reuters correspondent saw two fresh blast craters near a rebel checkpoint at the western entrance to the town.
But Ajdabiya is not home to the kind of migrant workers attracted by oil jobs to places such as Brega, Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. Many residents of Ajdabiyah consider the place home, are angry that their scruffy town has seen little benefit from Libya’s oil wealth and some said bombs won’t shift them.
Voicing sentiments echoed by others, 64-year-old Ihab Abdel Rahman said: “Look all around you and we are a rich country but we are poor people. The bombings just strengthen our resolve.”