Libyan rebels clean up battle-scarred eastern town

By Alexander Dziadosz

AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels cleared charred bodies and the shells of pick-up trucks from the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiyah on Monday, a day after they pushed out troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in a fierce battle.

Helped by NATO air strikes, opposition fighters took full control of the town, about 150 km (90 miles) from their coastal stronghold of Benghazi, after battling Gaddafi loyalists with rockets and machine guns on Saturday and Sunday.

NATO says it destroyed 11 of Gaddafi’s tanks outside Ajdabiyah on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

The rebels are now upbeat about the air support from NATO after previously complaining it was taking too long to respond to government attacks. “We have been able to advance because of the air strikes,” said rebel Belgassim El-Awami.

But many insurgents praised French President Nicolas Sarkozy rather than NATO for the strikes. Sarkozy led calls for military intervention in Libya and French warplanes were the first to attack Gaddafi’s forces. He is a hero among the rebels.

NATO took over from a coalition of France, Britain and the United States on March 31.

At the town’s green western gate, rebels gathered near the site of a NATO air strike to bundle the blackened and mangled bodies of Gaddafi fighters into blankets and drag them into the desert for burial.

“These are Gaddafi’s men who died during Sarkozy’s air strikes yesterday,” one rebel said.

Another, Muftah Jadallah, said that the insurgents had buried around 35 bodies of Gaddafi soldiers killed in the bombing and street fighting in the town.

Standing at a strategic road junction and guarding the road up to Benghazi, Ajdabiyah would be a major prize for Gaddafi. It is scarred by repeated battles and most residents have fled.

Homes and public buildings stood pockmarked with machine gun and artillery fire, windows were shattered and graffiti was sprayed liberally across town. But the streets were quiet.

GHOST TOWN

“Ajdabiyah has become a ghost town,” Mohamed el-Qubaily, a 45-year-old engineer, said as he stood next to the twisted wreckage of a rebel pick-up hit by rocket fire on Sunday.

“When the bombardment started, everyone left.”

Like many others, Qubaily said he had moved his wife and six children to Benghazi, but was staying behind to look after his property. “I’m staying to defend my house,” he said, pointing to a pistol tucked into his belt.

Charred packets of cheese and cans of beans were scattered on the road nearby among ammunition and burst rocket shells.

One man showed an identification card burned at the edges he said he found in the vehicle. “This man died a martyr,” he said.

Essam Mohamed, another rebel standing near the wreckage, said he would also stay in Ajdabiyah, keeping up the fight as long as Gaddafi was still in power. It will take time,” he said. “He’s a very strong man, very strong.”

Down the road, the city’s hospital, which had buzzed with frantic activity during the fighting, was nearly silent. The main hotel in town was shuttered, several of its windows shattered by gunfire.

Ajdabiyah has seen some of the most ferocious fighting of the revolt which began when Gaddafi crushed pro-democracy protests in February.

During the first days of the uprising, protesters torched many of its government buildings and covered its walls with spray paint.

Two subsequent battles for the town have left its streets and outskirts littered with the remains of tanks, pickup trucks, rocket launchers and other military hardware.

Some rebels seemed more upbeat and confident than for weeks, savoring victory in Ajdabiyah after a long struggle for control of the oil port of Brega, 70 km (45 miles) west.

“Gaddafi won’t enter Ajdabiyah again,” said Nasser Ibrahim, a rebel at the western gate. “Our forces are surrounding the city, even the south.”

But other rebels thought Gaddafi’s better-armed and trained forces would eventually make another attempt to claim the town, which is connected by a desert highway to Tobruk, a vital oil exporting port for the rebels.

“Gaddafi has fast desert cars and Grad missiles,” said engineer Qubaily, shrugging as some insurgents swept the last of the battle debris from Ajdabiyah’s main street.

“This has been a strategic city throughout history,” he said. “Since the days of the Romans, the Byzantines, the Greeks, the Italians, the English, the Americans — a lot of armies have been here.”

Libyan rebels clean up battle-scarred eastern town