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Gadhafi forces bombard cities key to rebel supply lines
TOBRUK, Libya (AP) — Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces bombarded two key rebel-held cities on Monday, witnesses said, as they attempted to seize back the country’s east by the air even as rebels said they kept control of the streets in the region that holds most of the country’s oil wealth.
Libya’s upheaval has turned into a two-front conflict along the country’s Mediterranean coast, where the majority of the population lives. Col. Gadhafi appears to have somewhat of an upper hand. But his forces don’t seem strong enough to overwhelm the rebels — setting the stage for a grinding conflict as the West debated Monday whether to intervene, mulling the imposition of a no-fly zone that the rebels have been pleading for.
The cities of Ajdabiya and Brega are key crossroads for rebel supply lines, a main weakness. To get ammunition, reinforcements and arms to the front, they must drive along open desert highways, exposed to airstrikes. Gadhafi warplanes struck at least three targets Monday morning in Ajdabiya, missing a weapons storage site but hitting rebel fighters at a checkpoint in an attempt to stop supplies, rebels said.
Said Ali Bouhilfaya, an engineer in Ajdabiya, said there were renewed bombings Monday evening.
“It is a war of annihilation,” Mr. Bouhilfaya said. “Mr. Gadhafi wants to stay in power even if he rules over graves.”
Another resident in Ajdabiya said he heard a bombardment but was uncertain whether it was an airstrike.
A rebel spokesman said a government plane dropped pamphlets over Ajdabiya earlier Monday, asking residents to eject anti-Gadhafi forces.
“Cut off their water and their food!” the pamphlets said, according to spokesman Abdul-Bari Zwei.
Gadhafi forces are trying to push back the long stretch of territory controlled by rebels — nearly the entire eastern half of the country, which also has most of Libya’s oil.
Government troops have scored victories using overpowering bombardments with artillery, tanks, warplanes and warships. Such an assault drove rebel fighters out of the oil port of Ras Lanouf several days ago.
But the regime offensive appears to be hampered by a lack of manpower: They can drive out rebels with barrages, but not necessarily hold the territory. After fleeing the bombardment Sunday, the rebels then pushed back into Brega in the evening and claimed to have captured dozens of fighters from Col. Gadhafi’s elite Khamis Brigade.
On Monday, about 2,000 rebel fighters — mainly members of a special commando unit that defected to the opposition — held Brega’s residential district, while pro-Gadhafi troops controlled the industrial oil facilities some distance away, Mr. Zwei said. Rebel fighters were searching the residential area for any remaining Gadhafi troops.
For the past week, the two sides have been battling for control over the two oil ports Brega and Ras Lanouf. But even if government troops take Brega as well, they may face even tougher resistance if they try to move further east, on the heavily populated cities that the opposition holds. Ajdabiya, 480 miles southeast of Tripoli, the capital, is the first of those cities.
Western Libya remains Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold, centered on Tripoli, where his militiamen have crushed any attempts at an uprising. But since early on in the revolt, which began Feb. 15, several cities in the west fell into rebel hands. Regime forces on Friday took back the most crucial of those cities, Zawiya, which lies on the capital’s doorstep, after a reportedly bloody and destructive weeklong siege.
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