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Libyan rebels meet stiff resistance nearing Sirte

The lighting rebel advance which drove back Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces over the weekend has stalled sixty miles from his birthplace of Sirte as it ran into stiffer opposition and fought chaotic organisation.

Libya: rebels run into stiff Gaddafi defences in Sirte
Rebel fighters flee under fire after they were ambushed by forces loyal to Col Gaddafi some 75 miles east of Sirte Photo: REUTERS

The ragtag wave of militia, which had earlier swept onward with the aid of Nato air strikes, was reduced to almost a crawl as it approached his family and military stronghold.

Nato, which is now in charge of the coalition action, was forced to deny its air strikes were being used as providing air cover for the advancing rebels.

Lt Gen Charles Bouchard of Canada, Nato's commander for Libya, said the goal was to "protect and help the civilians and population centres under the threat of attack."

Coalition strikes meanwhile continued on government targets yesterday. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that British Tornado aircraft attacked and destroyed Libyan government ammunition bunkers in the Sebha area of the southern desert early on Monday. Sebha is a stronghold of Gaddafi's Guededfa tribe. The French military also said that aircraft had struck a Libyan military command centre south of the capital, Tripoli.

While Col Gaddafi's troops had abandoned the towns of Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf with barely a shot fired, they showed no sign of fleeing Sirte so quickly.

A fluid front formed on the highway around 20 miles east of Binjawwad as the now skittish rebels scouted forward hoping the Gaddafi loyalists would fall back as before.

But with each hesitant advance, the convoys of soon sped back recklessly amid unconfirmed rumours of oncoming enemy tanks, or snipers and minefields awaiting them.

The sight of the speeding trucks several times sowed panic in rebels they passed and threatened to trigger a chaotic flight until commanders regained their grip.

"We are worried about what is up ahead," said Abdullah Mohammad, a 35-year-old from Benghazi as he scanned the desert scrub on the horizon.

"Some of those houses are full of Gaddafi loyalists and they are shooting at us as we pass," he said pointing to the roadside village of Harawa.

The day had begun with false rebel reports that Sirte had already fallen, leaving the road open to Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

The news was greeted with jubilation in Benghazi where the quiet night erupted in gunfire punctuated with explosions as overjoyed rebels threw grenades by way of celebration.

Nearer the front it became clear the reports were false and the militia had only managed to travel a few dozen miles in the previous 24 hours.

"They are running in front of us like rats and God willing we will take Sirte this evening", said one rebel unconvincingly, setting off a chant of "tonight! tonight!" from his comrades.

But their enthusiasm failed to translate into progress along the narrow strip of tarmac weaving from one side of the country to the other, which has become the main battlefield between rebels and Col Gaddafi's men.

Further Nato air strikes were critical to any chances of their pushing further, the rebels said. Largely untrained and equipped with few weapons heavier than assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks, they said they were unable to deal with Col Gaddafi's armour.

"There are tanks dug into a river bed up ahead and we cannot until they have been destroyed by the French or British," said Benissa Feroj, a 21-year-old unemployed rebel claimed.

The rebel's advance was further hampered by a chronic shortage of petrol. Cars and trucks queued 20 or 30 deep at the petrol pumps along the main road.

The lack of electricity meant the remaining petrol had to be drawn from the buried tanks by hand in dangled on string and laboriously collected in buckets and jerry cans.

Rebel leaders claim to be pumping thousands of barrels of oil in their captured refinery at Ras Lanuf, but the refinery was deserted on Monday, except for looters trying to hotwire cars and collect fuel or steal office furniture.

"There's petrol, but there is no electricity, so we cannot get it out," said Sala Hamed. "If it carries on like this, there will be big trouble for the rebels, we need petrol."

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