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One by one, the milestones on the road to Tripoli are falling

As Gaddafi's forces melt away, rebel eyes turn to the Libyan capital

The last time the rebels made it as far west as Bin Jawad, it ended in disaster: their fighters ran into a murderous ambush, lost 70 men, and were forced into a terrifying retreat that nearly ended their campaign.

But yesterday, after a stunning sweep across the territory for which they have fought so hard and for so long, they were back.

This time, with Western air power destroying almost all that is left of the regime's armour and artillery, the mood was very different. The rebels' eyes were cast towards Sirte, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace and the centre of loyalist resistance.

After that, there is only one more goal: Tripoli. In Bin Jawad yesterday, the enemy was nowhere in sight. And an excursion towards Sirte from Bin Jawad did not reveal any obvious preparations to stop the rebel advance. The few local people who had stayed behind amid the strife described regime forces steadily heading away with the few remnants of their equipment. On the other side of the front line, military vehicles including two tanks, apparently in good condition, passed through the desert town of Beni Walid, heading west.

Nearer to Sirte itself, a pick-up truck and Land Rovers carried soldiers and a truck carried a mobile anti-aircraft emplacement in the same direction. Civilian cars with families apparently carrying their belongings could also be seen leaving the area.

The shift in momentum is palpable. Rebels are now back in possession of the two key oil complexes of Ras Lanuf and Brega which handle a sizeable proportion of the 1.5 million barrels a day the country used to export before the uprising. The opposition's provisional administration in Benghazi stated that Qatar, which had joined the Western coalition in sending warplanes to Libya, would be marketing the oil. However, restarting production will be extremely difficult until the return of the foreigners who ran the plants, but left after the uprising.

The rebels were poised to strike at Tripoli before, but then had to fall back rapidly because of their ineptitude and the superior organisation and discipline of their opponents. But the way the regime's soldiers were melting away yesterday appeared to show that they were unwilling to carry on against what are now, with the involvement of international forces, overwhelming odds.

That theory was compounded last night by reports that Muammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte had been targeted by airstrikes for the first time. A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least four loud explosions heard.

Within 24 hours, Gaddafi's troops had pulled out of Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, names which had induced shudders among the Shabaab fighters after the heavy losses they suffered there in relentless artillery and missile salvoes. Now they were back, albeit with little of the bravado of their first visit, and wary of falling into a trap.

But the reasons why the loyalists may no longer have the will to fight was only too evident. For the second weekend in succession, bodies lay strewn, burned and dismembered among smouldering tanks and trucks on scrubby fields. What was changed from last Sunday was the amount of ammunition and the numbers of artillery pieces which had been simply abandoned.

With Western jets attacking convoys heading towards the rebel-held east, the regime's scope for replenishing supplies is severely limited. In Washington, the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said: "There is no doubt that their ability to carry out movement has been severely degraded."

Meanwhile last night, after a week of heated negotiations, Nato finally agreed to take full command of all aspects of military operations in Libya.

Also for the second consecutive week, the rebel fighters had themselves photographed with the wreckage, when they should have been pressing forward, some bringing their families to walk through corpses. Dozens of rounds were fired into the air to celebrate a victory in which the Shabaab had been witnesses rather than participants.

A few leaders have begun to emerge since the uprising of 17 February, mainly from among members of the military who defected, and they insisted that there was a new realism about the campaign and lessons have been learned from past mistakes.

Major Amar Bashir took part in the first battle for Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad but then returned to his home in Tobruk disillusioned by what happened.

"It was very difficult to have any kind of planning, we had big communications and logistical problems. I felt there was nothing much I could do and I took a break," he said. "But then I felt bad because I was at home while others were fighting and dying for the revolution, so I came back to offer my experience.

"There were problems," he added. "The Shabaab are very enthusiastic, but they are not professional soldiers and some of them simply would not listen to orders. We saw that by what happened in Bin Jawad the first time. We cannot afford to have something like that happen again."

Three weeks ago, the Gaddafi forces pulled out of Bin Jawad. A few members of the media, including The Independent, found a group of local residents waiting anxiously at the town gate for the rebels to arrive. Having been told of this, a group went into the town, celebrated by firing into the air, but then decided that the food and accommodation on offer were not to their taste, and went back to Ras Lanuf which had better facilities. The next morning they returned to Bin Jawad to be met by a fierce and well-planned defence which forced their retreat.

Some of the Shabaab claimed their defeat in Bin Jawad, and then Brega afterwards, was due to collaboration by groups of locals with the regime. But it has been difficult to find proof of this. What has emerged, however, are repeated accounts of abuse by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Ali Saad Mohuf, a 23-year-old farmer, who is also the imam of his local mosque, was arrested at Brega and taken to Sirte. "I was kept there for seven days and beaten every day," he recalled. "They would hit me on the back with their rifle butts and sticks without mercy. All the time they kept asking if I knew where arms were being kept. They kept on saying we were al-Qa'ida."

Mr Mohuf was freed the day after the airport at Sirte was subjected to an air strike. "[They] became very nervous by the bombing," he said. "I want to thank France, America and England. They helped to free me and I think what they are doing will help to free Libya. We do not want foreigners to keep troops in our country, but for now we must have their help."