Rebels came under fire on the outskirts of Ajdabiya on Sunday, hemming them in to their eastern outpost and denting their hopes of pushing west to try to end a stalemate in the Libyan war.
One witness said he saw around a dozen rockets land around the western entrance of the town, which rebels wanted to use as a staging post to retake the oil port of Brega. Many fled as loud explosions boomed across the town.
“There are still some guys out there at the western gate but the situation isn’t very good,” said Wassim Agouri, a 25-year-old rebel volunteer waiting at Ajdabiya’s eastern gate.
Some rebels on Saturday made it into the outskirts of Brega, 80 kilometres to the west, but many others retreated to Adjabiyah after six were killed by rockets fired by Qadhafi loyalists on the exposed coastal road joining the two towns.
By Sunday, scores of volunteer fighters and civilian cars carrying men, women and children streamed east from Ajdabiya down the coast road towards Benghazi, where the popular revolt against Qadhafi’s 41-year rule began on February 17.
Sunday marked a month since the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising force to protect civilians in Libya, leading to an international air campaign.
But despite NATO air strikes against Qadhafi’s armour, rebels have been unable to make or hold their gains in weeks of back-and-forth fighting over the coastal towns in eastern Libya.
In western Libya, the rebel-held city of Misrata has been besieged for seven weeks, raising international concern about a growing humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have died in fighting and bombing in the city.
A rebel spokesperson said that Qadhafi’s forces shelled Misrata again on Sunday, killing at least six people. Abdel Basset Mezerik said at least 47 people were also wounded.
The United States, France and Britain said last week they would not stop bombing Qadhafi’s forces until he left power.
With NATO troops bogged down in Afghanistan, Western countries have however ruled out sending ground troops – a position reinforced by the British prime minister on Sunday.
“What we’ve said is there is no question of invasion or an occupation – this is not about Britain putting boots on the ground…,” David Cameron told Sky News in an interview.
But he said outside powers would help in every other way to stop Qadhafi “unleashing this hell on people in Misrata” and other towns up and down the Libyan coast, including providing “non-lethal equipment” to the rebels.
The rebels have called repeatedly for heavier arms, saying their machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades are not powerful enough to face the government forces.
“We want weapons, modern weapons,” said rebel Ayman Aswey, 21. “If we had those, we could advance against them.”
Ajdabiya’s streets were almost deserted by mid-afternoon and rebels had begun barricading the road through the town with concrete blocks, tree branches, trash bins and anything else they could find for fear of an attack by Qadhafi’s forces.
Rebel pick-ups patrolled the streets and men took up positions across the town with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Others returned to positions at the western gate with their weapons pointed west and south into the desert.
Earlier on Sunday a sandstorm obscured the flat expanse of desert stretching west to Brega. Rebel fighter Ahmed Al Zuwaihi blamed the weather for a lack of air strikes by NATO warplanes.
“The weather is no good today. NATO hasn’t hit anything,” he said.
NATO warplanes instead bombed the area of Al Hira, 50 kilometres southwest of the capital Tripoli on Sunday and also hit the city of Sirte, Libyan state television said.
There was no sign of a ground assault by Qadhafi’s forces but, with the rebels often unable to hold their ground against the better-armed government loyalists, many in the town took the rocket attacks as a cue to leave.
In Misrata, rebels say they have faced daily bombardment from Qadhafi’s forces. The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch has also accused Qadhafi’s forces of using cluster bombs. The Libyan government has rejected the allegations.
A resident who arrived in Tunisia on Saturday on board a Medecins Sans Frontieres ship evacuating some of the wounded said the fighting in Misrata was getting worse by the day.
“They are bombing residential areas day and night. It’s non-stop and they are using bigger weapons,” Ibrahim Ali said in a hospital in Tunisia’s port of Sfax. “They bomb roads, houses.”
Food was running short and long queues formed outside bakeries. Some streets were fast becoming unrecognisable. “The destruction is total,” he said. Asked who was controlling most of the city, Ali said: “It’s 50-50. It can change quickly.” Reuters