Rebels retreat from Libya oil port under attack

Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior arms and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi's troops on Wednesday, exposing the insurgents' weakness without Western air strikes to tip the scales in their favour.

It had taken more than five days of allied bombardment to destroy government tanks and artillery in the strategic town of Ajdabiyah before rebels rushed in and chased Gaddafi's troops 300 km (200 miles) west in a two-day dash along the coast.



Two days later the rebels have been pushed back to close to where they started.



The Libyan army first ambushed the chaotic caravan of volunteers, supporters and bystanders outside Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a manoeuvre requiring the sort of discipline the rag-tag rebels lack.



The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf fell in quick succession to the lightning government counter-strike. Rebels showed no signs of trying to hold on to the next town, Brega, but carried on towards Ajdabiyah, where some regrouped.



Dozens of pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns milled around the western gate of Ajdabiyah. Confusion reigned.



Asked what was happening, one rebel said: "We don't know. They say there may be a group of Gaddafi's men coming from the south." That would suggest another big flanking move through the endless desert which pins the coast road to the sea.



Cars carrying families and their belongings streamed out of Ajdabiyah towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.



In town after town, Gaddafi force's have unleashed a fierce bombardment from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which has usually forced rebels to swiftly flee.



"These are our weapons," said rebel fighter Mohammed, pointing to his assault rifle. "We can't fight Grads with them," he said earlier before joining the rush away from the front.





Without Western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or even hold their positions against Gaddafi's armour. Warplanes flew over the battlefield for a time on Wednesday, but there was no evidence of any bombardment of government forces.



Rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.



When they advance it is often without proper reconnaissance or protection for their flanks. Their courage and enthusiasm notwithstanding, the insurgents tend to flee in disarray whenever Gaddafi forces start sustained firing.



"Whether we advance 50 km (30 miles), or retreat 50 km ... it's a big country. They will go back the next day," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.



"This revolution really is only five weeks old. On the political front it is very organised," he said. "Normally it takes six months to train a soldier ... We are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes."



A conference of 40 governments and international bodies agreed on Tuesday to press on with a NATO-led aerial bombardment of Libyan forces until Gaddafi complied with a UN resolution to end violence against civilians.



The Pentagon said on Tuesday 115 strike sorties had been flown against Gaddafi's forces in the previous 24 hours, and 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired. Britain said two of its Tornado jets had attacked a government armoured vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the besieged western city of Misrata.



Libya's official Jana news agency said air strikes by forces of "the crusader colonial aggression" hit residential areas in the town of Garyan, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli, on Tuesday. It said several civilian buildings were destroyed and some people wounded.



UN Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctions air power to protect Libyan civilians, not to provide close air support to rebel forces. That would also require troops on the ground to guide in the bombs. Without forward air controllers, intervening from the air in such a fluid battle space is fraught with risks.



Air strikes then may not be enough to stop the Libyan desert civil war turning into a stalemate.



The United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels, though they all stressed no decision had yet been taken. "I'm not ruling it in, I'm not ruling it out," US President Barack Obama told NBC.



Libya's Foreign Ministry said it would be tantamount to aiding terrorists.



Many of the amateur army of teachers, lawyers, engineers, students and the unemployed appear not to know how to properly use even the weapons they already have.



Obama said he had already agreed to provide communications equipment, medical supplies and potentially transport to the Libyan opposition, but no military hardware.



Russia has already accused the allies of overstepping their UN remit by carrying out strikes on Gaddafi's ground forces and on Wednesday warned the West against arming the rebels.



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was obvious Libya was "ripe for reforms", but Libyans themselves must decide without influence from outside.



"This has to be seen as a Libya victory, not a coalition victory," said Daniel Keohane of the Institute for Security Studies.



"I find it hard to see how the coalition can agree politically to arming the rebels, but without arms I can't see how the rebels can win."





Aid agencies are increasingly worried about a lack of food and medicines, especially in towns such as Misrata where a siege by Gaddafi's forces deprives them of access.



Government troops killed 18 civilians in Misrata on Tuesday, a rebel spokesman in the city said, and soldiers are still shelling and fighting skirmishes with rebels.



"There are skirmishes today. Tanks bombard the city every now and then," he said. "Snipers are still positioned in Tripoli Street (in the centre of Misrata)."



But a blockade of Misrata's Mediterranean port by pro-Gaddafi forces has now ended, allowing two ships to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate people wounded in the fighting, the spokesman told Reuters by telephone.



Protection of civilians remains the most urgent goal of the air strikes, and British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Gaddafi's supporters of "murderous attacks" on Misrata.



Libya expelled Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy on Wednesday, without giving a reason. Georgy had been detained for several hours earlier this month after trying to reach Misrata without being escorted by government "minders".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links