Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi pushed deeper into rebellious eastern Libya on Sunday, overrunning an important oil town while forcing lightly armed rebels back toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Rebel fighters fled Port Brega, site of a strategic refinery complex and oil terminal, under heavy bombardment and tried to hold back government forces rapidly advancing on Ajdabiya, about 95 miles south of Benghazi.
The fall of Port Brega is a serious blow to the rebel force, facing a government onslaught that has loosened the opposition’s grip on eastern Libya.
Just eight days ago, rebel fighters routed pro-Kadafi forces in Port Brega and another strategic oil city, Ras Lanuf, and spoke of taking the battle to Tripoli, the capital, far to the west.
The steady advance of Kadafi’s fighters behind airstrikes and rocket attacks puts pressure on rebel leaders in Benghazi to stop or slow the government’s assault up the Mediterranean coastal highway before it reaches the opposition stronghold.
Panicked rebels in Ajdabiya blocked reporters from driving farther southwest toward Port Brega. Many said they lacked the firepower to slow the government’s assault.
“Kadafi is on his way to Ajdabiya,” said Masoud Bwisir, a carwash owner fighting for the rebels, from the city’s western gate. “How can we stop him? He has tanks, planes. He fires at us from boats in the sea. Our guns are weak against him.”
Rockets slammed down late Sunday afternoon on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya, about 45 miles from Port Brega, as a cleric raised a bullhorn and called for warriors among the boys and young men in the city.
“If you have a weapon and want to fight, please come,” he said as rebels dug trenches and positioned antiaircraft guns. “But you need your own weapon. We have run out.”
State-run TV said Port Brega had been “cleansed of terrorist gangs of mercenaries.” It added: “All citizens are requested to go back to work and to their normal lives.”
The closed refinery at Port Brega normally produces 15% of Libya’s gasoline. With other gasoline sources also cut off by fighting, the rebels face a growing fuel crisis.
The Port Brega complex still feeds a natural gas pipeline that provides fuel for electric plants in Tripoli and Benghazi, executives of Libya’s biggest state-owned oil company said. They said Kadafi could cut the pipeline to Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and create electricity shortages.
From Port Brega, the coastal highway to Benghazi has no fixed gun emplacements to fight off a government advance. The only defense is inexperienced and undisciplined rebel gunmen riding in cars and trucks mounted with guns.
Seizing Ajdabiya might allow government fighters to race northeast over a largely undefended desert highway to the key rebel port of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, where they would be in position to block the coastal highway between Tobruk to Benghazi.
In Benghazi, the head of the rebel military effort called the defeat a “tactical withdrawal” and said Kadafi’s forces had overextended their supply lines.
Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, a former interior minister who defected to the opposition, said rebel fighters would try to lure Kadafi’s forces “into an area where we can even the fight.” He declined to elaborate.
Younis said army defectors had taken over leadership of the opposition force, which he called our shabab, or “youth,” though there has been little sign at the front of experienced professional soldiers among the rebel ranks.
In Tripoli, the Kadafi regime’s Col. Milad Hussein, who directs ideological instruction for Libyan troops, said government forces were preparing to seize Benghazi without “full-scale military action.”
“Once you come to them they just stand there and give up their guns,” Hussein said of rebel fighters.
Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in Benghazi, said Kadafi does not have enough loyal fighters to hold any eastern city or town for long. “He can bomb the heck out of these places, but he doesn’t have the foot soldiers to hold them,” he said.
Security was heightened Sunday at the downtown Benghazi courthouse that serves as opposition headquarters. Workers moved concrete barriers in place to block access to a narrow street leading to the courthouse entrance.
An announcer on rebel-controlled Free Libya radio urged residents to remain calm and patient.
The battlefield defeats left rebels suspicious of new faces, and they warned of informers in their midst. Fingers slipped toward triggers and no one smiled at checkpoints.
Dozens of retreating pickup trucks heavy with rebels and antiaircraft guns careened past, heading away from Port Brega toward Benghazi. One haggard fighter leaned out a truck and told rebels at the western gate, “Kadafi’s men are 12 miles from here. We need weapons. We don’t have the right weapons.”
Kadafi’s forces also pressed attacks against Misurata, east of Tripoli, the sole remaining opposition stronghold in western Libya, as heavy fighting continued. Salah Abdelaziz, an architect who serves as spokesman for the Misurata opposition, reported heavy bombardment and raging gun battles on the outskirts of the city, home to about 600,000.
About 50 people have been killed and at least 570 treated for injuries at a Misurata hospital, said a doctor there who asked that his name not be published.
“We have no milk for children and there is a major shortage of anesthetic drugs for operating,” he said in a telephone interview.
Zucchino reported from Benghazi, Fleishman from Ajdabiya and Daragahi from Tripoli.