BREGA, Libya — Rebel forces Saturday took back one city from backers of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and moved toward another in their biggest advance toward Tripoli since coalition forces began air strikes against the regime.
Their gains seven days into the U.S.-led air campaign came as President Obama faces bipartisan criticism of his Libya strategy, which he plans to address in a speech Monday night.
To win back Ajdabiya, the rebels appeared to apply the same tactics Gadhafi's regime used to take the cities of Ajdabiya and Brega nearly two weeks ago. Gadhafi deployed air strikes followed by heavy artillery.
The rebels, who lack their own air wing, waited until after U.S.-led coalition air strikes destroyed Gadhafi air forces and cornered his ground troops. The rebels then attacked Gadhafi's remaining soldiers with small arms fire until they were killed, went into hiding or retreated to just past Brega. Abandoned uniforms could be found scattered throughout Ajdabiya.
It was an extraordinary turn of events for the rebels, who had been forced to make a headlong retreat from the town after Gadhafi's advance. Only a fraction of them returned to win back the city, and only after the air strikes began; the rest stayed in their hometowns, in places like Benghazi, and defended their communities, saying they did not have adequate weapons to fend off Gadhafi's advance.
Gadhafi's government said its forces pulled back willingly and suggested that rebels had done nothing to recapture lost territory.
Coalition forces "were heavily involved, so the Libyan armed forces decided to leave Ajdabiya this morning," Khaled Kaim, a deputy foreign minister said in Tripoli Saturday.
By Saturday afternoon, large convoys of rebel fighters began moving from Ajdabiya toward the oil town of Brega, the next town west on the highway toward Tripoli, trying to determine how far Gadhafi had retreated.
At the edge of Brega, rebels stood on the highway with one another and discussed how far they could move before confronting Gadhafi loyalists. It appeared that Gadhafi forces were headed back to Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and his last major stronghold between the liberated east and the capital.
Bakar Sway, 30, a fighter, told his fellow rebels that he faced fighting on the outskirts of Brega. "They start shooting at you," he said.
In the end, the rebels won a small war of attrition as it appeared there were no more than a few hundred Gadhafi forces left in Ajdabiya when the airstrikes began. Hospital officials in Ajdabiya said they never received more than 9 patients in one day since Ajdabiya fell to Gahdafi forces March 15.
Nearly every corner of Ajdabiya had been hit during the fighting, scarred by bullet holes, tank shells, corpses or dark ground where an explosion detonated. Women and children were long gone; along the abandoned streets, only men had stayed to fight or protect their homes.
On Saturday, the rebels returned to Ajdabiya and fired every kind of weapon and explosive in their arsenal in celebration of a victory many had no part in. Deafening explosions were set off, and the sound of gunfire was ubiquitous. By the end of the day, the city's traffic circles were littered with shell casings, as one rebel after another fired into the air. They also began recovering corpses left throughout the city, at point leaving throwing a pile of suspected Gadhafi fighters into the back of a pickup and driving them to the hospital.
The city's skies were filled with dark clouds, from either the burning tanks or the celebratory explosives.
"The rebels came here at 2 a.m. (Saturday) and told us it was over. They said the air strikes cleared the area and that they took advantage of it," said Ramsy al Awami, 30, a surgeon at Ajdabiya's only hospital. "They said they were searching for Gadhafi forces."
But there was no visible sign here that a military leadership was guiding rebel movements. Instead one rebel after another said they decide to leave and come back on their own initiative. Mohammed al Shak, 36, a Libyan Red Crescent worker from Ajdabiya who stayed throughout the fighting said he saw neighborhoods organizing themselves to defend their block, but nothing more advanced then that.
"The only tactical move I saw was when the rebels pulled back so the French airstrikes could hit their targets," Shak said.
A military spokesman for the rebel council had said that Gadhafi fighters were negotiating their surrender, but it appeared that this never occurred. At best, the council's comments may have been a psychological tactic designed to divide and confuse Gadhafi's troops. The Ajdabiya imam, al Sharif Sherif, who the rebel council said was leading the negotiations, told McClatchy Saturday that he had spoken to no one and called the reports "rumors."
In Yemen, there was confusion Saturday after a senior government official said that beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh was close to ceding power and then state media quickly retracted his statement.
The official, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Kirbi, at first told news agencies that Saleh, who's been in negotiations with opposition leaders, military commanders and tribal leaders, would announce a transfer of power "before tomorrow." A few hours later, the official Saba news agency said Kirbi was quoted "partly and inaccurately." It then issued another statement saying that "the transfer of power must be via dialogue," perhaps indicating that the president — who's promised to resign multiple times before — wasn't yet ready to leave.
Saleh said in a speech Friday that he was ready to cede power to "safe hands," but the regime and its opponents are divided on when that will happen. The 69-year-old, U.S.-backed leader has offered to step down following elections scheduled for January, but demonstrators and opposition leaders want him to leave immediately.
(Shashank Bengali contributed from Tunis, Tunisia)
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