AJDABIYA, Libya — The front line for control of Libya moved to its easternmost point in three weeks on Saturday as forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi stormed this rebel-held town in a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks.
Rebels who swept in to defend Ajdabiya, 100 miles from the opposition capital of Benghazi, were hit by fire from pro-Gadhafi snipers and a rain of artillery shells. Street battles raged for hours inside the town, which was largely empty of unarmed civilians.
There was no sign of NATO aircraft during the battle, though a rebel spokesman said NATO had struck some unspecified targets before dawn. NATO strikes on Gadhafi loyalists have been crucial to rebel military successes.
Libyan state television showed what it claimed were live images of Gadhafi supporters celebrating in the streets of Ajdabiya, though by nightfall rebels said that they had chased most of the loyalists out of town. Fighting continued near the town's western gate, which Gadhafi's forces have pummeled since Thursday with missile strikes and mortar rounds.
Rebels claimed that they had captured three Gadhafi loyalists, including a high-ranking military officer, but those reports couldn't be confirmed. Fighters also said that a rebel helicopter had been shot down, but the source of the fire was unclear.
The battle appeared to show a rebel movement hanging by a thread, barely able to retain a key gateway to their capital, a city of some 1 million people. The ragtag opposition forces seemed surprised when Gadhafi's fighters — riding in about 30 4x4 trucks, some equipped with Russian-made Grad missile launchers welded into the beds — attacked Ajdabiya from three directions, including the southern desert and two western roads.
The loyalist attack showed the degree to which the Gadhafi forces have adapted to conditions on the ground, where heavy tanks and artillery have become easy targets for NATO jets enforcing a U.N. resolution intended to protect civilians.
Switching to civilian vehicles and light weapons, the Gadhafi forces are now using the same equipment as the rebels, confusing NATO air crews and leading to two mistaken NATO air strikes on rebel positions that killed at least 18 people in the last week.
Rebels have said they've begun to paint the tops of their trucks peach to distinguish them, but few vehicles moving toward Ajdabiya on Saturday bore the new marking.
With street battles raging and the explosions of battle easily heard in the distance, rebel fighters positioned on the desert highway a few miles outside Ajdabiya complained that reinforcements from Benghazi had fled at the first sign of a skirmish. As dusk settled, rebels battling to defend Ajdabiya reportedly couldn't distinguish between friendly forces and enemy fighters.
"You can't walk in the streets. You have to hold your ground and stay there because it's not safe," said Saleh Awad Ali, a 40-year-old rebel.
A spokesman for rebel forces said that the opposition had set an ambush for Gadhafi's forces, luring them into Ajdabiya "like cheese for the rats," but the lines of vehicles fleeing the town and at least one man killed by a bullet wound belied that analysis.
Ahmed Abdul Razaq, an engineer in his 20s, was struck in the neck by a bullet in the middle of the town, according to a cousin, Mohammed al Fakri. While at the small hospital in Ajdabiya, a bullet fired from a distance shattered a window, he said.
But Fakri, a rebel supporter, was confident that "Ajdabiya will be protected by its people."
The day began with surprising reports that rebels had pushed past the oil town of Brega, some 50 miles west of Ajdabiya, a place that Gadhafi loyalists had controlled for days. But a journey by Abdulkarim Mohammed, a 25-year-old Brega resident who tried to return home early Saturday, suggested that Gadhafi's forces still held the area.
Mohammed said that as he was halfway to Brega when he heard machine gun fire. He retreated east toward Ajdabiya. When he was 11 miles from Ajdabiya, he came under artillery fire, and when he arrived at Ajdabiya's western gate, he saw Grad missiles and rockets coming from the direction of the sea.
Mohammed isn't planning to return to Brega anytime soon.
"It doesn't feel safe," he said.
Elsewhere in Libya, NATO said that its aircraft destroyed ammunition stockpiles east of the capital, Tripoli, that Gadhafi's forces were using to shell civilians in the rebel-held western city of Misrata and other civilian areas.
Speaking in Naples, Italy, Lt. Gen. Charlie Bouchard, commander of NATO forces in Libya, said that airstrikes also hit armored vehicles belonging to Gadhafi's forces, including in one area near Misrata where the vehicles were being loaded onto transporters headed for populated areas.
We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship, Bouchard said. "Troops have also been observed hiding behind women and children.
"This type of behavior violates the principles of international law and will not be tolerated," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.