Rebels, Gaddafi forces clash on oil town outskirts

By Alexander Dziadosz

BREGA, Libya (Reuters) – Rebels pushed forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi out of much of Brega and toward the outskirts of the sprawling oil town on Monday in a slow advance west, but were still facing bombardment with each step.

Brega, spread across about 25 km (15 miles), has changed hands several times during the past month as government troops and opposition forces fought along a coastal strip that divides the rebel-held east and Gaddafi’s stronghold in the west.

Showing signs of greater organization than in past weeks, rebels aided by Western air strikes have moved more cautiously and held ground more stubbornly than before despite facing Gaddafi’s better-equipped ground forces.

“Gaddafi’s forces are waiting at the western gate exactly. Any advance by the rebels, they fire at with mortars,” said rebel fighter Youssef Shawadi, speaking a few kilometers (miles) from the western gate.

Signs of fighting were evident from dozens of burned out pick-ups and cars lying by the road through Brega.

Near the university — a focus of five days of clashes — thuds and blasts could be heard in the direction of the town’s western gate. Black smoke rose in several areas as the two sides fired rockets at each other’s positions.

Rebels said Gaddafi forces had laid mines and booby-traps as they withdrew west from the university.

A rebel was killed on Sunday morning when he stepped on a mine, two of his comrades said.

One of them was carrying a green hexagonal plastic container that he said was used to carry a mine. Some rebels appeared to be scouting an area off the road for mines and booby traps.

“Gaddafi wants the rebels on the road. If they keep to the road he can hit them with rockets and Grad (missiles),” said rebel army soldier Hassan el-Fetouri.

He said he thought the mines were laid from the university entrance and through Brega some 15 to 20 meters from the road.

“They (Gaddafi’s forces) are still near the (western) gate and beyond the gate. The clashes are continuing,” said another fighter, who did not give his name.

A rebel force mainly made up of enthusiastic but poorly trained troops had raced west to beyond Bin Jawad, about 525 km (330 miles) east of Tripoli, backed by Western air strikes early last week before Gaddafi’s troops mounted a counter-offensive.

Rebels were then pushed back, just as rapidly, more than 200 km (125 miles) into the eastern half of the country. But the new rebel attack has shown greater organization with more trained officers moving forward with heavier rockets.

Rebels, Gaddafi forces clash on oil town outskirts