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Rebels flee from Gaddafi army

Tripoli, March 30 (Reuters): Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior firepower and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi’s troops today, highlighting their weakness without western air strikes to tip the scales in their favour.

The rapid reverse comes just two days after the rebels raced westwards along the all-important coastal road in hot pursuit of the government army whose tanks and artillery were demolished in five days of aerial bombardment in the town of Ajdabiya.

Gaddafi’s army first ambushed the insurgents’ convoy of pick-up trucks outside the “brother leader’s” hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a manoeuvre requiring the sort of discipline entirely lacking in the rag-tag rebel force. The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf fell in quick succession to the lightning government counter-strike.

“They are coming from the desert,” yelled one fighter among a group of a dozen rebels 10-15km west of Brega training their guns south into the Sahara. Wisps of dust could be seen rising in the distance. Scores of rebel pick-ups and cars streamed past them in a chaotic caravan east towards Brega.

In town after town, Gaddafi’s forces have unleashed a fierce bombardment from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which has usually forced rebels to swiftly flee.

“These are our weapons,” said rebel fighter Mohammed, pointing to his assault rifle. “We can’t fight Grads with them,” he said before joining the rush towards Brega.

Without western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or even hold their positions against Gaddafi’s armour.

Rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.

When they advance it is often without proper reconnaisance or protection for their flanks. Their courage and enthusiasm notwithstanding, the insurgents tend to flee in disarray whenever Gaddafi forces start firing in a sustained way. “Whether we advance 50 km, or retreat 50km ... it’s a big country. They will go back the next day,” rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the Opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

“This revolution really is only five weeks old. On the political front it is very organised,” he said. “Normally it takes six months to train a soldier ... We are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes.”

A conference of 40 governments and international bodies agreed yesterday to press on with a Nato-led aerial bombardment of Libyan forces until Gaddafi complied with a UN resolution to end violence against civilians.

The Pentagon said yesterday 115 strike sorties had been flown against Gaddafi’s forces in the previous 24 hours, and 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired. Britain said two of its Tornado fighter-bombers had attacked a government armoured vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the city of Misrata.

Libya’s official Jana news agency said air strikes by forces of “the crusader colonial aggression” hit residential areas in the town of Garyan, about 100km south of Tripoli, yesterday. It said several civilian buildings were destroyed and an unspecified number of people were wounded.

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