WRAPUP 8-Libyan rebels rout Gaddafi forces in strategic town

* Rebels dance on Gaddafi’s tanks after retaking Ajdabiyah

* Pro-Gaddafi forces retreat westwards

* Western warplanes silence Gaddafi shelling of Misrata

* Rebels say they seized oil exporting town of Brega

(Adds detail of French air strikes near Misrata)

By Angus MacSwan

AJDABIYAH, Libya, March 26 (Reuters) – Libyan rebels backed
by allied air strikes retook the strategic town of Ajdabiyah on
Saturday after an all-night battle that suggested the tide was
turning against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the east.

In the west, France said its warplanes had destroyed five
Libyan aircraft and two helicopters at an air base outside
rebel-held Misrata. Pro-Gaddafi forces had earlier pounded the
city with tank, mortar and artillery fire that halted only as
coalition aircraft appeared overhead, a rebel told Reuters.

Western governments hope the raids, launched with the aim of
protecting civilians, will also shift the balance of power in
favour of the Arab world’s most violent popular revolt.

One inhabitant said 115 people had been killed in Misrata in
a week and snipers were still shooting people from rooftops.

In Ajdabiyah, rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags
and fired in the air near buildings riddled with bullet holes.
Half a dozen wrecked tanks lay near the eastern entrance to the
town and the ground was strewn with empty shell casings.

Rebels said fighting had lasted through Friday night into
Saturday. By the town’s western gate there were bodies of more
than a dozen of Gaddafi’s fighters. An abandoned truckload of
ammunition suggested his forces had beaten a hasty retreat.

“Thank you Britain, thank you France, thank you America,”
said one rebel, praising the Western air strikes against
Gaddafi’s forces.

Capturing Ajdabiyah, a gateway from western Libya to the
rebel stronghold of Benghazi and the oil town of Tobruk, was a
big morale boost for the rebels a week after coalition air
strikes began to enforce a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone.

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

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Interactive graphic http://link.reuters.com/puk87r

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MISRATA

In Misrata, the only big insurgent stronghold left in
Libya’s west, cut off from the main rebel force to the east,
shelling by Gaddafi’s forces fell silent on Saturday when
Western coalition planes appeared in the sky, a rebel said.

Libya’s third city is only about 200 km (120 miles) from the
capital and Gaddafi can ill afford to leave it in the hands of
anti-government protesters.

“He pulled his forces out of Ajdabiyah and Brega so that he
puts all his weight in attacking Misrata and winning so he can
control the whole west versus losing the whole east,” the rebel,
called Saadoun, said by telephone.

The French armed forces said around 20 French aircraft
supported by an AWACS surveillance plane struck targets during
the day on Saturday, including five Galeb fighter jets and two
MI-35 helicopters on the ground outside Misrata.

Rebels said they had seized control on Saturday of the oil
port of Brega, 70 km (45 miles) west along the Mediterranean
coast from Ajdabiyah. But there was no independent confirmation.

Brega, site of an oil export terminal and refinery, sprawls
over a large area and overall control can be hard to determine.

“Brega is 100 percent in the hands of liberating forces,”
said Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel spokesman in Benghazi.

Last week Libyan officials said nearly 100 civilians had
been killed in the coalition strikes.

On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed
the assertion, saying: “The truth of the matter is we have
trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we
have been responsible for.”

“We do have a lot of intelligence reporting about Gaddafi
taking the bodies of the people he’s killed and putting them at
the sites where we’ve attacked,” Gates told CBS News’ “Face the
Nation with Bob Schieffer”.

“CIVILIANS SAVED”

U.S. President Barack Obama, criticised by U.S. politicians
across the spectrum for failing to communicate the goals of the
air campaign, told Americans that the military mission in Libya
was clear, focused and limited.

He said it had already saved countless civilian lives.

Obama said Libya’s air defences had been disabled, Gaddafi’s
forces were no longer advancing and, in places like Benghazi,
his forces had been pushed back.

“So make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a
humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of
countless civilians — innocent men, women and children — have
been saved,” Obama said in a weekly radio address.

Obama, due to speak to Americans about Libya again on Monday
evening, had also been faulted by fellow politicians for taking
on another military mission in a Muslim country with the United
States embroiled in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

NATO has agreed to take over that role in enforcing the
no-fly zone and arms embargo against Libya, but final details
have not yet been worked out for the military alliance to take
over the air strikes on Gaddafi’s military and its equipment.

Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief
news reports of the air strikes. Mostly it showed footage —
some of it grainy images years old — of cheering crowds waving
green flags and carrying portraits of Gaddafi.

Neither Gaddafi nor his sons have been shown on state
television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his
compound in Tripoli on Wednesday.

State TV said the “brother leader” had promoted all members
of his armed forces and police “for their heroic and courageous
fight against the crusader colonialist assault”.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Maria Golovnina,
Michael Georgy, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Mariam
Karouny and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer and Ibon
Villelabeitia; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

WRAPUP 8-Libyan rebels rout Gaddafi forces in strategic town