- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

TOBRUK, Libya (AP) — Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s air force bombed the airport in the Libyan opposition’s main stronghold on Thursday after the rebels used seized planes and helicopters to launch attacks on the government’s advancing troops, witnesses and rebel officials said.

Two planes bombed Benina Airport just outside the city of Benghazi, one witness told the Associated Press. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

The rebels were using three of their own planes and some helicopters to attack Col. Gadhafi’s troops outside the city of Ajdabiya, the gateway to Benghazi and surrounding opposition-held territory, said Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in Benghazi.

Witnesses and rebels said Col. Gadhafi’s forces had surrounded Ajdabiya, seizing positions on all sides of the rebels, who are hoping for help from the U.N. Security Council before government troops move in.

The two sides have been fighting hard around the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya, and a senior hospital official told the Associated Press that 30 people had been killed and at least 80 wounded since Tuesday night. Many more of the injured couldn’t reach the hospital, according to the official there, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retaliation.

Col. Gadhafi’s rapid advance on the rebels appears to have spurred the United States to leave behind weeks of doubts about a no-fly zone in Libya and start advocating for broader U.N. authorization for international air, sea and land forces.

The Obama administration and other supporters of action against Col. Gadhafi were pushing for a Thursday vote on a draft resolution. Russia and China have expressed doubts about the United Nations and outside powers getting involved.

By Thursday afternoon, Col. Gadhafi’s army had surrounded Ajdabiya by land on three sides, leaving open only the road north to the larger rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Government forces also seized the nearby port town of Zwitina, which sits off that northern road, giving Col. Gadhafi positions on all side of Ajdabiya, activist Abdel-Bari Zewi told the AP.

He said that a fierce battle at the southern gates of Ajdabiya erupted just after midnight and lasted nearly three hours.

“The rebels appear only at night, not in the morning,” he said. “When we woke up this morning, we found Gadhafi’s troops still there.”

A resident told the AP that Ajdabiya had been hit by hours of airstrikes.

Mr. Zewi said the rebels, who officials have said control at least three planes, launched airstrikes against Col. Gadhafi’s troops about 10 miles from the western gate of Ajdabiya.

Gadhafi troops have not invaded the city on foot until now,” said Moataz al-Ghariani, who lives in downtown Ajdabiya and is in touch with the rebels. “They are only imposing a siege from three fronts: the western, the southern and the eastern. No one can leave, and no one can enter.”

Ajdabiya is the last major city on the road to the main rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 100 miles to the north along the Mediterranean coast.

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