Forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi sent rebels on a full-scale retreat Wednesday from towns captured earlier this week, as resistance sources blamed a sudden lack of allied air cover and a shortage of arms for the rout.
“The revolutionaries are retreating because the airstrikes have stopped,” said Sanad, who is close to rebels and only gave his first name out of concern for the safety of his family.
U.S., French and British forces have been carrying out airstrikes on the regime’s positions to enforce a U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians. NATO agreed earlier this week to take charge of all operations.
The rebels have been urging foreign governments to provide them with weapons so they stand a better chance against Col. Gadhafi’s better-trained and better-armed troops.
President Obama has left that option open.
“It’s fair to say that, if we wanted to get weapons into Libya, we probably could. We’re looking at all our options at this point,” he told ABC News this week.
Sanad, who has been in regular contact with rebels on the front lines, said they are fighting a lopsided battle against a well-armed enemy.
“If the international community cannot protect us from the air, there is no way our light weapons can take on Gadhafi’s heavy artillery,” he told The Washington Times.
The Defense Department said on Tuesday that 115 strike sorties had been flown against Col. Gadhafi’s forces in the previous 24 hours. Twenty-two Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired.
The rebels are retreating to Ajdabiya, a coastal city in the east that they recently won. The city of Bin Jawwad, which only earlier this week was in their control, has been lost to the regime and heavy fighting was reported in Ras Lanuf, a key oil town in the east.
The progress of the regime’s troops has put Ajdabiya at risk and underscores the fragility of the rebels’ gains.
“The rebels know that every city they leave behind will be the scene of a massacre by the regime’s forces,” said Sanad.
A woman close to the rebels’ Interim National Transitional Council in Benghazi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described skepticism in the council about the international community’s commitment to their cause.
“They see non-commitment, commitment, non-commitment,” she said. “Their morale is very low.”
Meanwhile, members of a medical team that returned last week from Libya told The Times that hospitals in the eastern city of Benghazi were overburdened by the large number of people wounded in the fighting.
Most of the patients have gunshot wounds to the head, chest and neck. Others have burns caused by Grad rockets fired by the regime’s troops.
In a related development, pro-Gadhafi forces have also laid land mines around rebel-held cities, according to Human Rights Watch.
The mines were found a few yards off the main road between Ajdabiya and Benghazi, in an area frequented by civilians. Two dozen anti-vehicle mines and roughly three dozen anti-personnel mines were found on the eastern outskirts of Ajdabiya.
Pro-Gadhafi forces have planted land mines around Col. Gadhafi’s hometown Sirte and in the Wadi al-Ahmar area, east of Sirte, according to some reports. Rebels came within 60 miles of Sirte this week before they were forced to retreat.
Issam Bahloul, a medical technician who volunteered his time in Libya, said while the rebels’ morale is high they are paying a very high price.
“Doctors performed surgeries nonstop,” said Mr. Bahloul.
He said the hospitals are in dire need of more doctors.
Dr. Tarek Tumiya, a California-based trauma surgeon who was also part of the medical team that traveled to Libya, said he was impressed by the rebels’ will to fight against all odds.
“They had serious injuries, but all they wanted to know was how soon they could return to the front lines,” Dr. Tumiya said.