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Gaddafi forces on the run as rebels advance

Horrific scenes as government units destroyed by air strikes

Muammar Gaddafi's troops pulled out of Ajdabiya yesterday after prolonged air strikes by Western warplanes destroyed almost all that was left of their armour and artillery on the eastern front, allowing rebel fighters to gain entry to the city.

By early evening the retreat had extended 60 miles to Brega. Pursuing rebels were halted at the city gate after a series of skirmishes with the regime troops digging in. However, the remains of tanks, heavy guns and ammunition trucks, some still smouldering, meant that the effective defences of the loyalist forces had been shattered.

Their withdrawal from Ajdabiya, after six days of stubborn resistance following a first round of pulverising bombing, indicated that the troops may be losing the will to fight on against what are now, with the involvement of international forces, overwhelming odds. Some units were seen heading away into the desert beyond Brega. On scrubby fields at the southern and western routes out of the city lay the burned and dismembered bodies of those for whom there was no escape. Last Sunday Col Gaddafi's troops appeared to have taken no action to protect themselves from what was about to befall them. They were caught, vulnerable, in the open, their corpses incinerated in their tanks and armoured cars or torn apart by spraying shrapnel.

Yesterday, the dead were strewn further away, as if the men this time were aware of the terrible danger and had attempted to get away from the vehicles being targeted from the air. Some had reached the main road, but the strikes had been carried out with missiles and bombs which had torn turrets off tanks and flung them many yards, and human bodies stood no chance. Two men lay side by side, one reaching out to the other with a gloved hand as if seeking companionship at the last moment. Around them were others, cut in half, decapitated.

As well people from Ajdabiya, others from Benghazi and points in between had come to view the scene. Families had brought children. Some were shocked by what they witnessed. Omar Eselmi covered the body of a young man, his face frozen in fear and pain, with a worn blanket and asked Allah to give him peace.

But minutes later the shroud was torn off by others who wanted to take pictures. One man rifled through the pockets and took some money. A group stood eating from a box of grapes found in the rucksack of a dead soldier. Nearby, two pairs of bras, it was claimed, had been found. "What does this mean?" a man shouted, waving them around. "Look what they had been doing," another added. They were placed on a dead body and photographed.

A few people living in the city charged that there had been mass rape by loyalist troops. No evidence has been found to support the allegation. Nevertheless, there undoubtedly had been suffering by residents during the occupation. The city had been without food, water or power for more than a week. During continuous shelling, more than half of the population of 135,000 had fled.

The Independent on Sunday had come into Ajdabiya through a desert route during the past week. We found that in contrast to the main rebel force outside the city, which had been repulsed with relative ease by regime troops, a resilient resistance was fighting hard inside. These local men had used their familiarity with side roads and alleyways to carry out ambushes. The regime troops had responded with heavy weaponry in populated areas. Some reports put the numbers of casualties at 100 dead and up to 300 injured. These figures cannot, however, be corroborated.

Yunis Abdullah Khalili and his family were among those who had decided to stay behind. A rocket had smashed through the front wall of the house killing his 68-year-old father Mohammed Yunis and causing stomach injuries to his brother Mohsin Abdullah, 19. "None of us were involved in the fighting. We had stayed at our house because we were afraid of what was going on outside," Mr Abdullah said. "This happened in the morning, when they were sitting on the front porch. There had been some shooting from this area, but that was the previous night. This was unprovoked. They did this to teach us a lesson. I shall never forgive Gaddafi for what he did to us."

Qadir Mohammed could no longer bear to see his wife and children go hungry. He had set off in his car to attempt to get to Benghazi and find food when a mortar round landed on the main street, shattering shards of metal and glass from the windscreen on his face. Mr Mohammed's wife, Fadila, said: "I cried and cried when I looked at his face. He was so badly hurt I would not let our sons and daughters see him. I just prayed to Allah that he would be saved."

Mr Mohammed was taken to the local hospital, but there was little they could do. "We have very little medicine left and even oxygen is in short supply," said Dr Muswa Al-Majbari. "We did what we could and then we had to send him for further treatment. We wanted to send him to Benghazi by ambulance, but that road was cut by fighting. So we had to send him to Tobruk by the southern road. It is a long journey. Unfortunately he died on the way."

Ajdabiya hospital had been treating the tide of injured from the battles in the eastern front even before the war came to the city itself. "We shall start receiving casualties again," said Dr Al-Majbari. "We need this time to stock up with supplies. We also need many, many more staff. It was 350 not so long ago; now it is down to 30. We cannot function with this number, but now the Gaddafi men have left Ajdabiya we hope the others will come back."

The rebels loosed off round after round into the air as they boasted of their triumph. Many of them had come up from Benghazi and have yet to fire a round in anger. But, with Western air support and a vastly weakened enemy, they may yet make the push for Tripoli.

The revolutionary forces appeared to have learned lessons from last Sunday when they were too busy photographing themselves with the wreckage and looting to press home their advantage and retake Ajdabiya. Hashim Nistri, an engineer, acknowledged: "We made mistakes. We also cannot do much without foreign help. But, inshallah, this time we shall keep going forward."