Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi suffered a significant defeat as his forces fled the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya, leaving behind a charred trail of smoking tanks and rocket systems destroyed by seven days of punishing allied airstrikes.
Rebel fighters in gun trucks raced into the nearly deserted city Saturday, firing their weapons into the air and clamoring over tanks in a daylong celebration of horn-honking and flag-waving.
With Kadafi's forces retreating to the south and west, exposing more armor to allied warplanes, the question now is how many working tanks and Grad rocket systems the Libyan leader has left, and how willing his soldiers are to continue facing airstrikes.
The thud of airstrikes could be heard Saturday morning south of Ajdabiya. With each explosion, cheers and celebratory gunfire erupted from rebels and Ajdabiya residents who were returning to their homes. The battered city's fall to government forces a week and a half ago helped spur the United Nations Security Council to authorize a no-fly zone and airstrikes to protect civilians.
Leaders of the 39-day rebellion in eastern Libya have said they will try to exploit the airstrikes to push Kadafi's forces west. Their ultimate goal, they say, is to "liberate" the capital, Tripoli, and overthrow Kadafi's 42-year regime. But they could face many daunting tests along the way, including his stronghold, Surt.
Atif Hasia, a spokesman in the rebel capital, Benghazi, said rebel gun trucks pursued government forces to Port Brega, a key oil city 45 miles southwest of Ajdabiya that the rebels captured, and then lost early this month.
Times journalists a few miles southwest of Ajdabiya saw no sign of resistance as rebel vehicles sped past, hauling heavy machine guns and antiaircraft systems.
Ajdabiya is a gateway to Benghazi and the junction for a desert highway east to the rebel-held port of Tobruk and the Egyptian border. The city controls access to the coastal highway west to oil refineries and terminals, and on to western Libya. A highway to Libya's biggest oil fields runs south from Ajdabiya.
Officials in Tripoli acknowledged that Kadafi's forces had been forced to retreat from the coastal city.
"In the last two days the so-called coalition — we call it the crusader — they were heavily involved in the attack on the armed forces and the civilians in Ajdabiya and nearby," said Khaled Kaim, a deputy foreign minister. "And that's why the Libyan armed forces decided to leave Ajdabiya early this morning."
Kaim, who called the retreat a "tactical pullback," said the key factor was the "involvement of the coalition forces."
In his weekly radio address, President Obama described the Libyan intervention as an emergency response to save lives.
"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," the president said.
Libyan officials said the coalition was moving beyond its U.N. mandate of protecting civilian lives toward helping topple Kadafi's regime.
"What we are doing at this very moment is trying our best and utmost to prevent a disaster," said spokesman Musa Ibrahim, warning that a rebel victory would turn Libya into another Iraq. "If something like this happens in Libya, it's a disaster. I don't think Libya is a good case for military intervention. People will die."
Hasia, the rebel spokesman, called the government retreat from Ajdabiya "the loss of a crucial lifeline for Kadafi." He said the opposition was concerned that Kadafi's forces might bomb or sabotage oil complexes in Port Brega and Ras Lanuf to keep them out of rebel hands.
It was unclear late Saturday whether Kadafi's forces intended to make a stand in Port Brega, move west to defend Ras Lanuf or retreat to Surt, 240 miles west of Ajdabiya.
Rebels in Misurata, a contested city about 125 miles east of Tripoli, claimed a small victory Saturday after launching a small-scale offensive against pro-Kadafi forces that have penetrated the city's center along main Tripoli Street and positioned snipers and mortars along the tallest buildings.
"This morning Tripoli Street was under their control," said Mohammad Darrat, an opposition supporter. "Now the street is cut in half and none of them can get in or out and they can't supply any food or anything to their men."
Any rebel westward advance makes control of Misurata a potentially key element in a march toward Tripoli. Securing control of Misurata would provide the rebels with a friendly way station on the road to the capital as well as a potential base from which to launch attacks against Surt from the west as well as the east.
In Ajdabiya, rebel gunmen shouted "To Surt! To Tripoli!" as they danced on burned tanks and vowed to push westward. They commandeered tanks and armored troop carriers abandoned by Kadafi's men, and hauled away crates of discarded ammunition.
Three fighters climbed a towering green gate guarding the city's southern entrance to unfurl a rebel flag that obscured proverbs from Kadafi's Green Book painted on the structure.
Rebels scrawled anti-Kadafi graffiti on flattened tanks: "Killers! Liars!" They burned the solid green government flag and tried to set afire tattered green uniforms and boots abandoned by fleeing soldiers.
Cheers and gunfire greeted a rebel driving a captured truck mounted with a BM-21 Grad rocket system.
Rocket barrages and tank fire had kept the rebels pinned down north of Ajdabiya for more than a week as they waited for allied airstrikes to wear down Kadafi's forces.
Several tanks and rocket batteries were empty and intact, and uniforms and boots littered the desert. That suggested that some Kadafi fighters had put on civilian clothes and fled south in cars to escape airstrikes.
"Thanks to God! Thanks to America! Thanks to France!" shouted Adel Labidy, an oil engineer turned rebel fighter, as he carried an armload of ammunition from a burning government T-72 tank.
Many homes, shops and apartment buildings in Ajdabiya were pocked with holes and craters from shrapnel and tank rounds. Charred cars littered the streets and parts of buildings were burned. Other neighborhoods showed only minor damage but remained deserted, with electricity and water service cut off.
"My home is safe, thanks to God, but Kadafi's people killed my cousin and two neighbors," said Ahmed Mohammed, a taxi driver who returned to his apartment for the first time in a week. "They shot any man or boy they saw on the street."
Mohammed shouted to make himself heard over the steady boom of rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft guns in celebration. One exuberant fighter sprayed a burst of automatic weapons fire inches over the heads of fellow rebels dancing on a tank, forcing them to dive for cover as they cursed the shooter.
At least 82 civilians and rebel fighters died during the siege, said Ayoub Zweye, one of seven volunteer doctors at the city's main hospital, which operated on generator power.
"We saw some horrific wounds; some people were barely alive when they arrived," Zweye said. "Some people's faces were so disfigured they were not recognizable."
Outside the hospital morgue, three decomposing bodies lay on the ground next to wooden coffins. One was clothed in a military uniform and bore a grievous head wound beside a tanker's headgear. Two more corpses lay on metal trays in refrigerated chambers inside.
Of the five dead, three were Kadafi soldiers and two were rebel fighters, a morgue worker said.
He leaned down and gently kissed the bearded cheek of a dead rebel before sliding the body back into the chamber.
Zucchino reported from Ajdabiya and Daragahi from Tripoli. Times staff writer David Savage in Washington contributed to this report.