A mud-streaked gun truck careened to a stop on Libya’s coastal highway here after speeding away from clashes with Moammar Kadafi’s forces a dozen miles to the south.
Rebel fighter Abdul Mahim Massoud shouted from the front seat: “Kadafi’s people are killing us with tanks and rockets! We need your planes! Thank you, America! Thank you, France!”
Two days earlier, this spot was well within government-held territory. Kadafi’s forces had pushed to the outskirts of the rebels’ de facto capital, Benghazi, about 80 miles north of here. But airstrikes by Western warplanes have forced the government troops back, leaving a trail of charred tanks, troop carriers, fuel trucks and mobile rocket batteries littering the road.
On Monday, smoke still rose from several scorched tanks, their turrets blown off. Flames licked at two armored vehicles, adding to a powerful smell of burned metal and decomposing flesh. Emboldened rebel fighters rushing past the wreckage to the new front line were scanning the desert skies, hoping for more Western aircraft.
The scene along the highway here sharply illustrated the difficulty of defining the international air campaign launched to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week. The Obama administration has emphasized that the resolution authorizing military strikes in Libya is intended specifically to protect civilians from government attack — not to help rebel fighters overthrow Kadafi.
Some of the rebels, however, seem to regard the foreign planes as their private air force. In full retreat a week ago, the rebels are now declaring their intent to pursue Kadafi’s forces as they retreat.
The U.S. officer in charge of the operation, Army Gen. Carter Ham, said in a video briefing with Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Germany that after the airstrikes around Benghazi, Kadafi’s forces “possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations.”
After Benghazi, the no-fly zone will be extended to cities such as embattled Misurata in western Libya, and the capital, Tripoli, Ham said, adding, “We have no mission and no intent to provide close air support to the opposition.”
President Obama on Monday reiterated that “it is U.S. policy that Kadafi has to go.” But Pentagon officials have said the airstrikes and missile attacks have not been aimed specifically at the longtime leader.
In Tripoli, a Libyan government spokesman accused the international forces of supporting a rebel offensive, which he called “illegal, immoral.” The airstrikes are violating the Security Council resolution by killing civilians and destroying civilian airports and harbors in Tripoli, the Kadafi stronghold of Surt and other cities, said the spokesman, Musa Ibrahim.
“The rebels are advancing southward,” Ibrahim said. “The West is clearly providing air cover for the advance of the rebels toward the Libyan armed forces.” Meanwhile, he said, “if we attack, then we will be called murderers and killers.”
Libyan state television showed nonstop stock footage of steely-eyed soldiers driving tanks, launching rockets and boarding transport helicopters, suggesting that the war effort was continuing. A barrage of antiaircraft and tracer fire lighted up the sky over Tripoli early Tuesday.
Opposition leaders, however, said they did not want or expect the foreign warplanes to support their fighters.
“We don’t ask them to protect our revolutionary fighters — they can protect themselves,” said Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition national council in Benghazi. “But we do ask them to help protect civilians in areas where Kadafi’s forces are killing and terrorizing people in occupied cities.”
But the expectation that the airstrikes would help the rebels militarily has created “an awkward situation for us,” Gheriani said. Fighting Monday at the new front line in Ajdabiya and elsewhere illustrated that.
Even with Kadafi’s air force grounded in much of eastern Libya, some tanks, rocket batteries and armored troop carriers survived and were poised on Ajdabiya’s narrow residential streets.
Rebel fighters massing among the sand dunes along the coastal highway in Zuwaytinah said Kadafi’s forces were pounding some neighborhoods with tanks and rockets. Civilians trying to flee were killed or wounded, they claimed, but it was unclear whether those reports were accurate or tailored to spur further airstrikes.
A warplane could be heard circling above, but fighters and civilians fleeing the city said there had been no strikes.
Rebels said they would continue fighting to take Ajdabiya — whether or not allied planes attack Kadafi’s forces. If government forces retreat west to Surt, 250 miles from Ajdabiya, or on to Tripoli, rebel fighters and opposition leaders say, they intend to pursue them — preferably with help from airstrikes.
But the rebels said they have had no contact with allied military commanders and do not coordinate ground movements with any foreign military. The rebels have received weapons, ammunition and communication equipment from several countries, said chief rebel spokesman Abed Hafeez Ghoga, but he declined to identify them.
Ghoga said allied airstrikes “level the playing field” by eliminating heavy weapons that had helped Kadafi’s forces rout rebels in the east in the last two weeks. He said the opposition hoped to achieve “a balance” between airstrikes and rebel attempts to drive government forces farther west.
Ghoga said rebel fighters intended to push west to “liberate” cities such as Misurata and Zawiya, now under government siege. He said the goal of the 34-day-old rebellion is to overthrow Kadafi.
In Misurata, opposition supporters described intense fighting between rebels and pro-Kadafi forces.
“The Kadafi troops are in the main street of Misurata with their snipers,” said a doctor who asked that his name not be used to protect his family. “Our fighters are trying to fight them and finish this. Now in Misurata you can hear the sound of machine guns everywhere.”
A source in the city said nine people had been killed in the previous 24 hours, and that hospitals and a major clinic were being flooded with wounded.
On Saturday, government tanks and rocket batteries had penetrated Benghazi and pounded the southern outskirts and some neighborhoods until French warplanes attacked the column. When Kadafi’s forces retreated south, they were set aflame by U.S., British and French aircraft. Gheriani said at least 94 people were killed Saturday.
Two days later, rebel fighters on the new front line in Ajdabiya loaded ammunition and cleaned their weapons as they prepared to return to the fighting.
But they were clearly hoping for more airstrikes.
“There are still bodies along the roads,” said Ahmed Mohammed Narebi, a rebel wearing blue camouflage pants who said he had defected from the government police force. “We need to go back into the city, but it’s too dangerous. We need the planes.”
A few rebels predicted that the mere threat of airstrikes would prompt Kadafi’s men to retreat, and perhaps to abandon their armor. Several empty tanks dotted the coastal highway nearby, untouched by airstrikes. Rebels loaded one tank onto a truck for later use against Kadafi’s forces.
“Really,” Narebi said, glancing at the sky, “the airplanes are our best weapons.”
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli and David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.