BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) ― Libyan rebels were pushing their advance on Sunday after recapturing two key towns from Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in their first major victories since the launch of Western-led air strikes.
The rebels, who were in danger of losing their eastern stronghold city of Benghazi before the strikes were launched on March 19, on Saturday seized back Ajdabiya and Brega, 160 and 240 kilometers to the west.
And, spurred on by the air strikes, they were on Sunday eyeing Al-Bisher, a town another 30 kilometers west along the road to Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said late Saturday that coalition air strikes were killing soldiers and civilians along the road between Ajdabiya and Sirte.
“Tonight the air strikes against our nation continue with full power,” said Ibrahim.
“We are losing many lives, military and civilians,” he added while repeating a call for a ceasefire and an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which approved military action to stop attacks by the Libyan regime on civilians.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview set to air Sunday, accused Gadhafi’s forces of planting bodies “of the people he’s killed” at the site of allied air strikes, to make it look as they were civilian victims.
U.S. President Barack Obama, under pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a “bloodbath” threatened by Gadhafi.
The Pentagon said the Western-led strikes had continued apace on Saturday with 160 missions flown, compared to 153 a day earlier.
In Libya’s west, French fighter jets destroyed at least five warplanes and two helicopters from pro-Gadhafi forces in the Zintan and Misrata regions on Saturday, said a statement on the French armed forces website.
British warplanes destroyed five Libyan armored vehicles in air strikes on Ajdabiya and Misrata on Friday, the defense ministry in London said.
On Saturday, the rebels, backed by the Western barrage, poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents reported.
The bodies of at least two pro-Gadhafi fighters were surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing into the air and shouting “God is greater.”
Outside Ajdabiya, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP.
Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes.
“The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop,” Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP.
“I couldn’t move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on.”
Rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmollah told reporters in Benghazi that Ajdabiya was “100 percent in the hands of our forces.”
Gadhafi’s forces were “on the back foot... because they no longer have air power and heavy weaponry available” after a week of bombing by coalition warplanes, he said.
A rebel fighter told AFP that insurgents had also retaken Brega.
“We are in the centre of Brega,” Abdelsalam al-Maadani told AFP by telephone. “Gadhafi’s forces are on the retreat and should now be at Al-Bisher (30 kilometers) west of Brega.”
A journalist traveling with them confirmed the rebels were in control of the centre of the oil town.
Rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said that Gadhafi’s forces at Ajdabiya had refused several offers to surrender before rebel fighters attacked.
Ajdabiya, straddling the key road to Benghazi, is the first town recaptured by the rebels since a coalition of Western forces launched U.N.-backed air strikes.
But in Libya’s west, where the capital Tripoli and most of Gadhafi’s support is located, rebels reported Misrata was under government fire before coalition warplanes intervened.
Another spokesman said he believed a hospital ship organized by aid groups was also en route to Misrata, Libya’s third city, under NATO escort from Malta.
At least three people were killed in Misrata on Saturday, a doctor contacted by AFP said, bringing to 117 the number killed there, with more than 1,300 wounded in a week of attacks by Gadhafi forces.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Obama gave his most detailed review of the conflict so far, insisting national interests were behind his decision to order U.S. forces into the U.N.-mandated combat.
“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,” he said in his weekly radio and online address.
When innocent people are brutalized by a leader like Gadhafi threatening a “bloodbath,” and when nations were prepared to respond together, “it’s in our national interest to act,” Obama said.
The military mission was “clear and focused,” he added, noting the Security Council had mandated the no-fly zone to prevent “further atrocities.”
“We’re succeeding in our mission. We’ve taken out Libya’s air defenses. Gadhafi’s forces are no longer advancing across Libya.”
Libya’s opposition’s interim national council leader Mahmud Jibril went so far as to say his people no longer needed outside help, in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.