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Libyan rebels reclaim lost ground; NATO to expand its role

Rebel gun trucks rolled into this abandoned oil city unopposed, their pickup beds piled high with weapons and ammunition after a breakneck sprint down Libya's coastal highway that signaled a remarkable one-day shift made possible by punishing airstrikes against government forces.

Meeting little or no resistance, the rebels retook another oil town, Port Brega, earlier Sunday and sped west to Ras Lanuf. From there, they laid plans to advance on Surt, the hometown of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and a pro-government bastion 130 miles away.

The fate of Surt could prove decisive in the 40-day-old rebellion against Kadafi. It is the second-largest center of support for him beyond the capital, Tripoli.

After advancing more than 150 miles in 24 hours to Ras Lanuf, rebel fighters feasted and raised their tricolor flag over a city they had fled in panic just 16 days earlier. Other rebels raced 35 miles farther west to the desert outpost of Bin Jawwad, from which they said many Kadafi troops had fled.

Pro-government fighters and militiamen, sent fleeing by airstrikes, had abandoned tanks and rocket batteries. Eager rebel gunmen scooped up valuable weapons and ammunition caches.

Photos: A ride through familiar terrain in Libya

The sudden reversal of fortune reflected the unpredictable nature of a war that has raged across 220 miles of a coastline that stretches more than 1,000 miles. Disorganized opposition fighters drove Kadafi loyalists far along the coast before Kadafi's superior firepower and militias backed by mercenaries nearly overran the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

Airstrikes allowed the rebels to solidify their hold on eastern Libya, which is responsible for 75% of the country's normal oil production, and shift the battlefield calculus back in their favor — at least for now.

"These airplanes are like God's air force!" shouted Jabala Basil, a merchant-turned-rebel. Rebels spoke confidently of pressing on to Tripoli.

But Surt is blocking their way.

A government official in Tripoli did not deny that rebels had advanced past Ras Lanuf, but declined to say where Kadafi's troops were gathered. "We're still strong on the ground," Musa Ibrahim told reporters. "And we're holding positions."

A small group of international journalists in Surt spotted busloads of people heading toward Tripoli. At least six bombs rocked the city after nightfall. Shops and businesses were closed.

Libyan officials said a move by rebels to take Surt would pit western tribes against eastern tribes loyal to the Benghazi-led opposition.

"They cannot do it," said Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim, who predicted that "hundreds of thousands" of people would move east to defend Surt and sack eastern Libya.

The mood in Tripoli was grim. Long stretches of storefronts were shuttered, and construction projects mothballed. The black-market rate of the Libyan dinar has dropped nearly 50% since the crisis began. Some residents reported waiting more than two hours for gas.

After nightfall, at least nine loud explosions were heard, presumably from airstrikes.

The no-fly zone approved by the U.N. Security Council on March 17 authorizes attacks on government forces threatening civilians, but does not permit them to be conducted in support of rebel fighters. NATO countries agreed Sunday to enlarge the alliance's intervention, going beyond enforcing a no-fly zone to taking on the entire U.S.-led military operation, which would include airstrikes against pro-Kadafi security forces and their hardware.

Allied air and cruise missile strikes already had destroyed many of the tanks and rocket batteries that drove rebels from Ras Lanuf all the way back to Benghazi. They also have helped rebels strengthen their once-tenuous supply lines. Trucks loaded with food, water and fruit juice trailed dozens of gun trucks that towed heavy machine guns and antiaircraft weapons as they raced westward Sunday.

But even protected from government aircraft, opposition supply lines will be badly stretched if the rebels attack Surt, 335 miles of inhospitable desert highway from their support base in Benghazi. Retreating government forces may also be short of fuel, given allied airstrikes on their supply center and military hub in Surt.

On Saturday, air power helped end a siege of the important crossroads town of Ajdabiya. Dozens of government tanks and artillery batteries were left burning along the coastal highway. Many of Kadafi's fighters apparently stripped off their uniforms and abandoned their armored vehicles to escape in civilian cars.

Along the barren desert highway between Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf on Sunday, only eight government trucks and a single tank had been set afire by airstrikes. That suggested allied warplanes had allowed Kadafi's fighters to flee unharmed after they abandoned their equipment.

Rebel fighters in Ras Lanuf said Kadafi's forces had fled past Bin Jawwad, where they had halted the rebels' westward advance on March 6. Several rebels spoke warily of occupying Bin Jawwad, which is populated by tribes whose members allowed Kadafi's forces to use their homes as sniper positions during fighting there this month.

Rebels and civilians happily filled up with free gasoline at two stations that reopened to long lines Sunday. Outside the Ras Lanuf petrochemical complex, a fuel tanker supplied free gasoline to rebels and to civilians driving west to check on homes abandoned to the recent government onslaught.

With refineries shut down by fighting, parts of eastern Libya have suffered chronic gasoline shortages. About 80% of the region's gasoline is now imported from refineries in Europe, according to oil company executives in Benghazi.

The fuel arrives by ship in the main rebel port of Tobruk, passing allied warships enforcing an embargo against fuel and supplies bound for Tripoli, according to opposition leaders.

Rebels gave reporters and passing civilians plastic pouches containing rations of bottled water, boxed milk, dates, processed cheese, an apple and a cereal power bar — makeshift MREs, or military meals ready to eat. After suffering from short supplies for weeks, rebels were so well provisioned Sunday that they left mounds of bottled water and boxes of fresh bread in towns along their path.

Residents returning to Port Brega described killings and looting by Kadafi militiamen and by mercenaries from Chad, Niger, Sudan and other sub-Saharan nations.

Shops and snack bars in Port Brega had been ransacked. Some buildings bore shrapnel scars and bullet holes. Downed electric lines snaked across the main highway through town.

"They tore through all the houses. They stole all the sheep and cows and slaughtered them," said Salam Mohammed, 41, a driver for the Sirte Oil Co. in Port Brega who returned home after almost two weeks.

Down a street littered with bullet casings and rocket shrapnel, a fat rebel fighter loaded a pickup truck with uniforms and boots abandoned by Kadafi's fighters. The man wore a new pair of combat boots.

"War is good," he said in English.

In Ras Lanuf, the petrochemical complex was shut down but relatively unscathed, easing rebel fears that Kadafi's forces might destroy it to keep it out of their hands.

In the tidy residential area that houses oil workers, most of the white seaside bungalows were unscathed. But some homes and other buildings had been damaged by government airstrikes and rocket attacks. Most anti-Kadafi graffiti left by rebels had been painted over.

Jubilant rebel fighters wolfed down food from the plastic provision bags and helped themselves to abandoned ammunition. One cache held mounds of tank and mortar rounds and several SAM-7 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

In Ajdabiya, rebels towed away government T-72 tanks and BM-21 Grad truck-mounted rocket batteries. Most were badly burned, but some still were in working condition. Rebels and returning residents posed for snapshots atop pulverized tanks.

Government fighters in Port Brega left behind graffiti that evoked their high ambitions as they advanced toward Benghazi before allied warplanes struck: "Today Ajdabiya, tomorrow Benghazi."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Times staff writers Henry Chu in London and Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli contributed to this report.

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