Sanctions bite in Tripoli but rebels fail to push on

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Libyan troops and rebel forces appeared to be locked in a stand-off on the eastern front yesterday as residents in Tripoli complained that sanctions were beginning to bite a week after the UN Security Council authorised military action to halt Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's assault on his own people.

Overnight air attacks by Western jets – with the RAF involved for the first time in the east – destroyed some of Gaddafi's tanks and artillery around the strategic town of Ajdabiya. But this did not stop Gaddafi's forces repulsing an advance by the revolutionary fighters, who fell back further even as their commanders claimed Ajdabiya would be wrested from the regime within hours.

Last night US Vice-Admiral William Gortney warned that Gaddafi could be arming volunteers to fight the uprising,, adding: "His air force cannot fly, his warships are staying in port, his ammunitions stores are being destroyed, communications towers are being toppled, his command bunkers rendered useless."

The rebels' westward push was checked at Ajdabiya about two weeks ago, and re-seizing the town would be a huge morale boost for the opposition forces. But the rebels' failure to take advantage of the Western military onslaught has raised fears of a protracted stalemate. The rebel leadership, based further east in Benghazi, claimed that the loyalist soldiers in Ajdabiya were negotiating, but there was confusion about what terms they had been offered.

"They have been told they must surrender, nothing else is acceptable," said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the provisional administration. "We expect Ajdabiya will be liberated today or tomorrow," he added, but could not say why the rebel forces were still stuck outside the city six days after air strikes destroyed the bulk of the regime's tanks and artillery.

Families coming out of Ajdabiya described how loyalist troops were attempting to move from the outer edges of the city into the urban centre, positioning themselves among the remaining population to make it more problematic for Western jets to attack ground forces.

In the capital, queues were forming at petrol stations, apparently as a result of damage to the country's two main refineries – at Zawiya in the west and eastern Ras Lanuf – although residents and a government energy official said that fuel imports were being hit by sanctions and a naval blockade. In Tripoli's old city yesterday, one shopkeeper said that the price of some vegetables had doubled because of the flight of Egyptian workers employed on large farms, and that there was also a shortage of cooking gas.

The regime, meanwhile, took foreign journalists to a rural family home east of Tripoli, said to have been hit by a coalition missile, in an effort to deflect mounting international criticism of its claims about civilian casualties.