WRAPUP 4-Rebels push west as air strikes hit Gaddafi forces

* Rebel advance westwards rapidly reverses recent losses
* Insurgents seize all east oil terminals, eye Gaddafi bastion
* Conditions grim in besieged Misrata
* Government spokesman suggests Gaddafi on the move

(Recasts with new dateline, details)

By Angus MacSwan

BIN JAWAD, Libya, March 27 (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed
further west on Sunday to retake more territory abandoned by
Muammar Gaddafi’s retreating forces, which have been weakened by
Western air strikes.

Emboldened by the capture of the strategic town of Ajdabiyah
with the help of foreign warplanes on Saturday, the rebels have
regained the initiative and are back in control of all the main
oil terminals in the eastern half of the North African country.

“There are no Gaddafi soldiers here. We control all the
town,” rebel fighter Youssef Ahmed, 22, said in the town of Bin
Jawad, 525 km (330 miles) east of the capital Tripoli.

A Reuters correspondent in Bin Jawad saw more than two dozen
rebel pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns in the town
centre, as fighters were shooting in the air in celebration.

Bin Jawad is the westernmost point the rebels reached in
early March, before they were pushed back by Gaddafi’s
better-equipped forces to their stronghold of Benghazi.

Rebels said Gaddafi loyalists had retreated westwards and
that they planned to push on towards Sirte, the Libyan leader’s
heavily defended home area on the Mediterranean coast.


More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH]

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“We want to go to Sirte today. I don’t know if it will
happen,” said 25-year-old Marjai Agouri as he waited with
another 100 rebels along the main coastal road outside Bin Jawad
with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and
around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

The rebel advance is a rapid reversal of three weeks of
losses and indicates Western air strikes under by a U.N. no-fly
zone are shifting the battlefield dynamics in their favour.

Their gains put the rebels back in control of all the main
oil terminals in the eastern half of Libya — Es Sider, Ras
Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk.

In Ras Lanuf, battle debris was scattered around the eastern
gate, which had been hit by an air strike.

At least three trucks of Gaddafi’s forces were smouldering.
Ammunition, plastic bags of rations left behind and a tin bowl
with a half eaten meal on the ground suggested Gaddafi’s forces
had beaten a hasty retreat.

Mansour al-Breik, a 20-year-old shopkeeper now turned
fighter, said: “The air strikes were from midnight to 3 a.m.”


On the way into Ras Lanuf a Reuters correspondent saw a bus
loaded with Gaddafi soldiers who had been taken prisoner,
escorted by a machinegun-mounted pickup.

As foreign media passed, rebels chanted: “Sarkozy, Sarkozy,
Sarkozy” in reference to the French president and air strikes by
coalition states including France aimed at protecting civilians.

As the front line shifted towards the heartland of Gaddafi’s
support, government forces pounded Misrata in the west with
tank, mortar and artillery fire on Saturday, and resumed
shelling on Sunday after a pause that followed an air strike.

“Misrata is under attack, the city and the port area where
thousands of workers are. We don’t know whether it’s artillery
or mortars,” the resident, called Saadoun, told Reuters by
telephone from the city on Sunday.

A Misrata resident told Reuters by phone the humanitarian
situation in the city was very bad, but that rebels had said
they would fight until the city was freed from Gaddafi.

“Misrata has been under siege for 38 days,” another
resident, Sami, said by telephone. “Not much food, water is a
rarity and people are obliged to use wells to get water. We have
problems with medicines.”

A rebel in Misrata told Reuters Gaddafi was putting all his
weight into attacking Misrata so he could control the whole of
the west of the country after losing all the east.

Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in
the capital Tripoli that Gaddafi was directing his forces but
appeared to suggest the leader might be moving around the
country so as to keep his whereabouts a mystery.

“He is leading the battle. He is leading the nation forward
from anywhere in the country,” said Ibrahim.

“He has many offices, many places around Libya. I assure you
he is leading the nation at this very moment and he is in
continuous communication with everyone around the country.”

Asked if Gaddafi was constantly on the move, Ibrahim said:
“It’s a time of war. In a time of war you act differently.”

Capturing Ajdabiyah was a big morale boost for rebels a week
after air strikes began to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone.

“This is a victory from God,” said Ali Mohamed, a
53-year-old teacher in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

“Insha’allah (God willing), we will be victorious. After two
days, we will be in Tripoli,” he said.

Fouzi Dihoum, a catering company employee, said the rebels
could push forward because the area between Ajdabiyah and Sirte
was desert where Gaddafi forces were easy targets for planes.

“There is nowhere to hide. It’s an open area.”

Libyan state television was on Sunday broadcasting pop songs
and images of palm trees, wheatfields and vast construction
projects completed in Gaddafi’s four decades in power.

Gaddafi himself has not been shown on television since he
made a speech on Wednesday and his sons Saif al-Islam and Khamis
— who earlier in the conflict spoke regularly to foreign media
— have been out of sight even longer.

Internet social networks and some Arabic-language media have
reported that Khamis, commander of the elite 32nd brigade, was
killed by a disaffected air force pilot who, according to the
reports, flew his plane into the Gaddafi compound in Tripoli.

There has been no confirmation and Libyan officials say such
reports are part of a deliberate campaign of misinformation.

Last week Libyan officials said nearly 100 civilians had
been killed in coalition strikes, but U.S. Defense Secretary
Robert Gates dismissed the assertion.

NATO ambassadors were to meet on Sunday to discuss plans for
broadening the alliance mandate to take full command of military
operations, including attacks on ground targets.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Edmund Blair,
Maria Golovnina, Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Tom
Pfeiffer, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam Karouny and Patricia Zengerle;
Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark

WRAPUP 4-Rebels push west as air strikes hit Gaddafi forces