Moammar Kadafi’s warplanes bombed a military airport in Benghazi on Wednesday, the first assault on the eastern rebel stronghold since a revolt by inexperienced fighters with looted weapons began one month ago in an attempt to topple the Libyan leader.
The airport attack came as government troops moved to tighten their grip on Ajdabiya, 95 miles south of Benghazi, while rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades and traveling in speedboats fired on Libyan ships off the Mediterranean coast.
A succession of pitched battles sent refugees fleeing as government soldiers pushed to crush the uprising. Kadafi’s son scoffed at the threat of a Western-backed no-fly zone and predicted that the fighting against an often erratic and confused insurgent force was about over.
A siege of Benghazi would test the tactics and tenacity of rebels who have often fled under heavy onslaughts by better-armed government troops. There are almost no defensive fortifications around Libya’s second-largest city, but opposition leaders say they would fight a guerrilla war, and Kadafi lacks the soldiers and supply lines to triumph.
Guards at the military airport said two bombs struck outside the base and three exploded inside shortly after dawn. There were no reports of casualties. A crater along the airport’s outer wall was quickly filled in by rebels, who have been loath to acknowledge their setbacks. One insurgent raised his rifle to force journalists from the airport’s entrance.
Government troops attacked Ajdabiya on Tuesday, holding it for hours before withdrawing to the outskirts as rebels launched a counteroffensive. By Wednesday morning, with warplanes circling high overhead and rebels racing down desert highways in pickup trucks, Kadafi’s forces surged into the city again. Smoke plumes rose on the horizon and civilians gathered their belongings and fled.
“The shelling went on until 3 a.m.,” said Mari Atiya, who was fleeing in a truck with his wife, two children, five sheep and cartons of diapers. “When it stopped, we saw people dead in the street and cars destroyed. There were snipers on rooftops with red lasers on their guns, and they shot teenage boys who raised their arms.”
A rebel helicopter skimmed low from Benghazi and flew toward Ajdabiya. Bursts of gunfire were heard closer to the coast and it appeared that Kadafi’s army was attempting to gradually squeeze opposition fighters. The rebels claimed to have captured hundreds of Libyan soldiers and eight tanks.
Rebels at a checkpoint in Sultan, about 20 miles north of Ajdabiya, said younger, inexperienced fighters have been replaced at the front by about 1,000 soldiers who defected from Kadafi’s army. The fighters refused to let journalists drive closer to Ajdabiya.
One rebel, Mahmoud Bin Hamid, helped push a stalled truck carrying a decades-old recoilless rifle. “We have special commandoes and armored personnel carriers fighting now in Ajdabiya,” he said.
Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition national council, said a rebel frigate intercepted an oil tanker from Greece late Tuesday carrying 25,000 tons of fuel bound for the government in Tripoli.
He said rebels escorted the tanker to the port in Tobruk near the Egyptian border and captured 30 Libyan sailors. The opposition said it has deployed three Russian-made frigates, outdated military ships that have limited firepower but are relatively nimble.
A small group of journalists taken from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to the outskirts of Ajdabiya reported that there still were pockets of rebel resistance in the city. The reporters described seeing charred vehicles, bullet-riddled trucks, buildings pocked by gunfire, discarded munitions and at least three bodies. They spotted more than a dozen tanks outside the city entrance and evidence that anti-Kadafi graffiti had been painted over.
The government’s strategy has been to advance during the day and pull back at night, when the rebels counterattack. But with each day, Kadafi’s forces have edged closer to Benghazi.
Kadafi’s son Seif Islam claimed in a television interview that the fighting was nearly over: “In 48 hours, everything will be finished.” He said it was too late to impose a no-fly zone.
The government also tightened its grip around Misurata, the last active rebel redoubt in western Libya. Cellphone and land lines there that were working until Tuesday appeared to have been severed. An opposition activist said by e-mail that government forces were pummeling the city with artillery, killing two civilians and four fighters as well as injuring 15.
State television urged the rebels to reconcile with the government, but the younger Kadafi called on them to leave the country. “We don’t want to kill. We don’t want revenge,” he said. “But you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: Leave, go in peace to Egypt.”
In Benghazi, many residents remained defiant, but also seemingly oblivious to an impending onslaught.
Hundreds of men, women and children marched along the city’s Martyrs’ Square chanting anti-Kadafi slogans, firing guns into the air and berating the international community for not imposing a no-fly zone. Thumping revolutionary anthems blared from a loudspeaker just hours after the airport was bombed.
“Nobody is afraid,” said Ramadan Budarra, 28, a construction company safety officer. “Look, even the women are out demonstrating. Kadafi can’t even take Ajdabiya, so how can he even come close to Benghazi?”
Mafta Mousa, a retired naval officer attending the opposition rally, said of Kadafi: “Nobody fears this madman. He tries to intimidate the people, but no one is afraid of him.”
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli contributed to this report.