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Plumes of black smoke rose over Ajdabiya yesterday as rockets and mortar bombs exploded in this empty town that pro-Qaddafi troops and rebel militiamen have now been fighting each other to control for several weeks.
As the battles continued, Muammar Qaddafi met with African leaders in Tripoli to try to negotiate an end to the conflict. The African Union (AU) planned to press their efforts with the rebels in a separate meeting today. The South African President Jacob Zuma said Colonel Qaddafi had accepted the AU’s “road map” for peace, which calls for an immediate ceasefire, opening channels for humanitarian aid and talks between the rebels and the government.
The continuing fighting is highly confused with each side eyeing with suspicion every approaching pick-up carrying a machine gun in the back to work out in good time if it is friend or foe. Ajdabiya keeps changing hands as small groups of armed men make sporadic forays into the town, once inhabited by 140,000 people, almost all of whom have fled. NATO said its aircraft had destroyed 25 government tanks, 11 on the road to Ajdabiya and 14 on the outskirts of the besieged rebel city of Misrata in western Libya. But around Ajdabiya, the government was using pick-ups, usually Toyotas and Datsuns, making it impossible to distinguish them from the rebels or the civilian population.
The numbers fighting on both sides were small, with perhaps a few hundred on the rebel side yesterday on foot or in vehicles. About 10 miles north of Ajdabiya they were setting up a fall-back line but it consisted only of a few trucks with rocket launchers, a very inaccurate weapon.
Rumors of the imminent approach of the enemy periodically swept through fighters and refugees alike. “Qaddafi’s men have cut the road ahead,” said a frightened-looking man pointing down the road towards Ajdabiya. His story was untrue, but for a worrying period there were no vehicles coming on the opposite side of the road, suggesting that it might be cut further ahead.
Verifiable facts are hard to come by. A NATO strike appears to have destroyed two vehicles and killed six people on the far side of Ajdabiya. The local hospital says 13 people had been killed. Four rebel soldiers were reported to have had their throats cut. An Algerian man, accused of being a mercenary at a rebel checkpoint but quite likely to be a migrant worker, was executed.
Ajdabiya and the area around it are vital because its fall would make the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 100 miles to the north, more vulnerable to attack. Its loss would push the rebels away from the stretch of coast known as al-Khalij, where the towns of Brega, Ras Lanuf, and as-Sidra, are key to the Libyan oil industry. Defeat at Ajdabiya might also shake international support for the rebels and lead the rebels’ backers to suspect that the end of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime is not as close as they hoped.
Neither side appears to have the numbers to make a break through. Pro-Qaddafi fighters have kept up their morale despite air attacks. They have also ambushed the rebels several times by allowing them to advance down the main road and then attacking out of the desert. In theory it would not be difficult for them to push to Benghazi, an hour-and-a-half’s drive to the north. NATO aircraft would find it difficult to distinguish pro-Qaddafi forces from rebels and civilians. If they got close enough to lob a few rockets into the rebel capital this could start an exodus.
The rebel forces are barely holding their own because of lack of effective political and military leaders, a shortage of training, poor organization, and, despite popular enthusiasm for their cause, sufficient numbers of men at the front. The rebels say they are not getting enough support from NATO air strikes, but it is only NATO aircraft that prevent Colonel Qaddafi retaking Benghazi, though he would need a bigger army to push into the hilly interior of northern Cyrenaica.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq