Moammar Kadafi’s forces pushed to within striking distance of Libyan rebels’ de facto capital after a swift advance up the Mediterranean coast, putting themselves in position to bombard or besiege the country’s second-largest city and its passionate, poorly armed defenders.
Backed by superior firepower, pro-Kadafi forces launched a punishing surprise attack Tuesday on the final city blocking their advance on Benghazi, where the rebels have established a government to challenge the dictator’s four-decade hold on power.
They stormed into Ajdabiya from two directions, overwhelming lightly armed rebels, who accused government forces of indiscriminately striking civilians fleeing in minibuses and trucks over a desert highway.
Late Tuesday, rebels counterattacked, and their leaders said they were moving into the city once again.
Rebel volunteers, who vowed to make a final, bloody stand in the city 95 miles south of Benghazi, had fled in gun trucks, firing futilely at the sky as government warplanes bombed the city, and tank rounds and rockets exploded in residential neighborhoods.
The onslaught underscored how momentum had shifted in favor of Kadafi, who has relied on warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery to crush a monthlong rebellion. It came as Western powers failed to reach an agreement on imposing a no-fly zone designed to negate Kadafi’s air supremacy.
After a string of rebel advances, Kadafi’s forces have swept back through three other cities in the last week, setting up a possible showdown at Benghazi. It also gave them an opportunity to strike directly eastward toward Tobruk near the Egyptian border, cutting off virtually all of the remaining rebel-held territory.
Panicked residents of Ajdabiya fled the city of 120,000, joining retreating rebels on the clogged coastal highway to Benghazi. Some rebels were pinned inside the city by bombardments on both the western and eastern approaches.
The attack started shortly after sunrise and intensified when Kadafi loyalists hopped out of two unmarked cars and began firing along city streets, killing at least 25 people, according to witnesses. Snipers fired from rooftops as a wave of soldiers dressed in civilian clothes advanced through the city, followed by troops in fatigues.
“It was chaos and shelling and everyone was escaping,” said Benassa Mahjab, an ambulance volunteer. “Homes were flattened; Kadafi’s soldiers were firing alongside tanks. I saw more than eight bodies in one ambulance. The rebels retreated to a defensive line about [20 miles] east of the city.”
The soldiers “attacked everything, even mosques and hospitals,” said Ahmed Mossa, who joined a group helping families escape. “The rebels ran out of ammunition after Kadafi’s forces bombed their weapons depots.”
Ajdabiya was a strategic storage point for the rebels’ arsenal, now in government hands. Kadafi’s fighters penetrated thin rebel defenses and pushed into Ajdabiya along the highway from the west, but also from the desert to the south, catching the rebels by surprise.
“That really shocked them,” said Dr. Awad Ghweiry, who supports the rebel cause and spoke via cellphone from his car, parked along the highway outside Ajdabiya.
Ghweiry said some young civilians who had volunteered to fight despite their lack of military training proved themselves “just playing at it, not really serious” by fleeing the city. But he said others remained in Ajdabiya, hiding in houses and office buildings while preparing ambushes.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, whose government had advocated aggressively confronting Kadafi, told French radio flatly that government forces had gained the upper hand.
“Had we used military force last week to neutralize a number of runways and the few dozen planes he has, then perhaps the reversal which is currently taking place to the detriment of the opposition would not have happened,” Juppe said on a day Western diplomats again deferred action on imposing a no-fly zone. “But that’s the past.... We have perhaps missed a chance to restore the balance.”
Libyans in the capital, Tripoli, fired weapons into the air in celebration after state television announced the capture of Ajdabiya. The broadcast declared that the city “has been cleansed of the mercenaries and terrorist gangs linked to Al Qaeda,” which the Kadafi regime blames for the uprising.
Kadafi, in a televised late-night speech at his Bab Azizia palace in Tripoli, said that only 150 people had died in the recent clashes, and the victims were either members of his own security forces or “rats,” a reference to his opponents.
“What happened is a few rats and dogs infiltrated our society and got some weapons,” he said. “We consider these to be limited incidents.”
He also taunted Western powers that are moving to tighten sanctions and discussing the no-fly zone.
“I dare the British, French and Americans to give liberty to their people. They are dictatorships,” he said. “Who appointed you wardens of Libya?”
The assault on Ajdabiya followed an apparent government victory over rebel opposition in Zuwarah, 30 miles from the Tunisian border. Zuwarah was the last rebel-held city west of Tripoli.
To curry favor with populations in newly retaken territories, the regime said Tuesday that it would give each family along the coastal strip between Bin Jawwad and Port Brega a $400 payment, state television reported.
The 95-mile stretch of highway between Ajdabiya and Benghazi is undefended open desert, giving Kadafi’s forces a clear path to rebel headquarters in Libya’s second-largest city.
Government planes and tanks bombarded the junction of a highway that leads east through the Sahara desert to Tobruk, an important rebel-held port city. Kadafi’s forces could push down the highway and attempt to cut off the 265-mile coastal highway to Tobruk and possibly close the border with Egypt.
That would leave Benghazi encircled and probably precipitate a long siege of the city and its Mediterranean port.
But in Benghazi on Tuesday, hundreds of residents took part in a loud caravan of cars that cruised along the city’s corniche, where opposition supporters honked horns, fired weapons and chanted anti-Kadafi slogans.
Dr. Rida Mazagri, a neurosurgeon who practices in Charleston, W.Va., and has volunteered to serve in Libyan hospitals, said the main hospital in Ajdabiya was evacuated Tuesday morning after a shell exploded outside the front entrance.
“It was too dangerous to stay,” Mazagri said by cellphone as he drove east to Benghazi. “There were bombing from the air, the sea and the ground.”
Mazagri said three patients, at least one of them a rebel fighter, died of shrapnel wounds at the hospital before it was abandoned. All other patients had been evacuated earlier in the week in anticipation of a government bombardment.
Two opposition council representatives insisted that rebel fighters were still holding a defensive line at the city’s western gate. But they acknowledged that there were heavy bombing and shelling in Ajdabiya and government forces were pushing toward the city.
“The fight is at the western entrance,” said Essam Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. “Our guys are still in control there.”
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli contributed to this report.