Libya air raids target Gadhafi hometown of Sirte

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyan state television reports that international airstrikes are targeting Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown and stronghold of Sirte for the first time.

Foreign journalists in the city reported loud explosions and warplanes flying overheard.

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along a key coastal highway. Rebels were advancing rapidly west on the highway Sunday toward Sirte after international airstrikes eased their way.

An Associated Press reporter in the capital said international forces were also heavily bombarding the city that is Gadhafi’s main support base. There were at least nine loud explosions in Tripoli after nightfall and antiaircraft fire was heard.

BREGA, Libya — Libyan rebels have taken a key oil town in their continuing push westards towards the capital Tripoli, backed by international air strikes.

After being stymied for weeks by the heavy weapons of Moammar Gadhafi’s army, rebels captured the city of Ajadibya Saturday and then swept into the oil town of Brega the next day.

International air strikes have destroyed much of the government’s heavy weaponry in the area.

“There are no Gadhafi forces here now, the rebels have Brega under their full control, it is free,” said rebel commander Ahmed Jibril from the westernmost edge of the town near the entrance to the oil facility.

“There was a small fight in Brega yesterday evening and the Gadhafi forces fled,” he added.

AJDABIYA, Libya — Libyan rebels clinched their hold on the east and seized back a key city on Saturday after decisive international airstrikes sent Moammar Gadhafi’s forces into retreat, shedding their uniforms and ammunition as they fled.

Ajdabiya’s initial loss to Gadhafi may have ultimately been what saved the rebels from imminent defeat, propelling the U.S. and its allies to swiftly pull together the air campaign now crippling Gadhafi’s military. Its recapture gives President Barack Obama a tangible victory just as he faces criticism for bringing the United States into yet another war.

In Ajdabiya, drivers honked in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired guns into the air and danced on burned-out tanks that littered the road.

Their hold on the east secure again, the rebels promised to resume their march westward that had been reversed by Gadhafi’s overwhelming firepower. Rebel fighters already had pushed forward to the outskirts of the oil port of Brega and were hoping to retake the city today, opposition spokeswoman Iman Bughaigis said, citing rebel military commanders.

“Without the planes we couldn’t have done this. Gadhafi’s weapons are at a different level than ours,” said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya. “With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing.”

The Gadhafi regime acknowledged the airstrikes had forced its troops to retreat and accused international forces of choosing sides.

“This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces,” Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in Tripoli. “They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war.”

Ajdabiya’s sudden capture by Gadhafi’s troops on March 15 — and their move toward the rebel capital of Benghazi — gave impetus to the U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader’s military.

The Pentagon said U.S.-led forces pounded Libyan ground troops and other targets along the Mediterranean coast and in Tripoli, Ajdabiya and the western contested city of Misrata in strikes overnight, but they provided no details on what was hit. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Darryn James, said there were no Tomahawk cruise missile strikes overnight.

Altogether, the Pentagon said the U.S. military launched nearly 100 strikes overnight, just slightly higher than a day ago.

Airstrikes Friday on the city’s eastern and western gates forced Gadhafi’s troops into hasty retreat. Inside a building that had served as their makeshift barracks and storage, hastily discarded uniforms were piled in the bathroom and books on Islamic and Greek history were scattered on the floor.

Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, said the city’s eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations.

“All of Ajdabiya is free,” he said.

Rebels swept into the city and hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of antiaircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower. Later in the day, other rebels drove around and around a traffic circle, jubilantly firing an assortment of weapons in the air — antiaircraft weapons, AK-47s, RPGs.

Outside the city, Muftah el-Zewi was driving away, his back seat loaded with plastic bags filled with blankets and clothes that he picked up after going to his home in Ajdabiya for the first time in days.

“We went and checked it out, drove around the neighborhood and it looked OK. Hopefully we’ll come back to stay tomorrow,” he said.

The turnaround is a boost for Obama, who has faced complaints from lawmakers from both parties that he has not sought their input about the U.S. role in the conflict or explained with enough clarity about the American goals and exit strategy. Obama was expected to give a speech to the nation Monday.

“We’re succeeding in our mission,” Obama said in a radio and Internet address. “So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians — innocent men, women and children — have been saved.”

The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.

Pentagon officials said that forces loyal to Gadhafi are a potent threat to civilians. And they are looking at plans to expand the firepower and airborne surveillance systems in the military campaign, including using the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors, as well as helicopters and drones.

Former Libyan ambassador to the United States Ali Aujali called Libya a unique situation.

“If no action will be taken, we will have another massacre in Africa that will be remembered like Srebrenica and Rwanda,” he said. “It was the right action at the right time.”

Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition’s eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misrata have suffered under sieges of more than a week because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to push out Gadhafi’s troops. Residents lack electricity, phone lines and water.

A doctor in Misrata said airstrikes there on Saturday put an end to two days of shelling and sniper fire from Gadhafi’s forces. The city was quiet Saturday afternoon, said the doctor. For now, he said, rebels control the city center, just as they have in Ajdabiya.

A resident of Zwara, a former rebel stronghold in the west, said the regime has the town firmly in its grip again. He said pro-Gadhafi forces are dragging away people there and in the town of Zawiya who participated in protests that began Feb. 15.

“They have lists of demonstrators and videos and so on and they are seeking them out. We are all staying home and waiting for this to be over,” said the resident. He said a friend who helped coordinate checkpoints when the opposition held the city was taken away Friday.

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