Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior arms and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi’s troops on Wednesday, exposing the insurgents’ weakness without western air strikes to tip the scales in their favour even as the first air strike in two days against Gaddafi’s forces in the east was carried out near Ajdabiyah.
Also on Wednesday, Nato began to take command of Libyan air bombing operations from a US-led coalition, as warplanes and other assets from several allies came under the military organisation’s control.
“Today Nato aircraft are flying under Nato command in the Libyan sky,” Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
“This is a phased process, which will be completed as soon as all allies and partners have transferred authority for their assets,” Lungescu said.
In the Hague, the Netherlands said it had frozen more than three billion euros ($4 billion) of assets as part of EU sanctions against the Libyan government.
“We informed the parliament that 3.1 billion euros of Libyan assets have been frozen since March 2,” a spokesman for Dutch Finance Minister Niels Redeker said.
The air strike, about 10km west of the town, sent a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky and brought cries of jubilation from the rebel fighters, who had earlier called for air support by coalition jets.
The air raid was the first in two days in eastern Libya, where rebel forces were pushed back some 200km on Wednesday by Gaddafi’s forces who blazed through town after town with tanks and heavy artillery.
In the distance, the shells from Gaddafi’s forces could be half-felt as a deep vibration in the air, half-heard as an abbreviated thunder clap. Puffs of black smoke kicked up far away, warning of approaching danger.
The ceding of almost all the flat, arid terrain the rebels had taken control of just five days ago was an unplanned, almost panicky affair.
Talk by the rebel Transitional National Council in its Benghazi stronghold of a “tactical retreat” was clearly hollow. The insurgents — most of them overconfident young men with no military training or discipline whatsoever — know nothing of tactics.
Angry mumblings against French President Nicolas Sarkozy, hitherto seen as the rebels’ principal protector, were heard.
“Why aren’t they bombing? We’ve heard things like Sarkozy is backing out of this situation,” said Abdullah Shwahdi, a 25-year-old fighter.
Justifying their lack of fight, the rebels pointed out they were poorly armed with vintage or looted weapons, some of which jammed or had no more ammunition. It was the fight of “the people” against an army, they said.
“We want two things: that the planes drop bombs on Kadhafi’s tanks and heavy artillery, and that they (the West) give us weapons so we can fight,” 27-year-old guerrilla Yunes Abdelghaim said.
It had taken more than five days of allied bombardment to destroy government tanks and artillery in the strategic town of Ajdabiyah before rebels rushed in and chased Gaddafi’s troops 300km west in a two-day dash along the coast.
Two days later the rebels have been pushed back to close to where they started.
The Libyan army first ambushed the chaotic caravan of volunteers, supporters and bystanders outside Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a manoeuvre requiring the sort of discipline the rag-tag rebels lack.
The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf fell in quick succession to the lightning government counter-strike. Rebels showed no signs of trying to hold on to the next town, Brega, but carried on towards Ajdabiyah, where some regrouped.
Cars carrying families and their belongings streamed out of Ajdabiyah towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
In town after town, Gaddafi force’s 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 earlier before joining the rush away from the front.
The US, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels, though they all stressed no decision had yet been taken. “I’m not ruling it in, I’m not ruling it out,” US President Barack Obama told NBC.
Libya’s Foreign Ministry said it would be tantamount to aiding terrorists.
Obama said he had already agreed to provide communications equipment, medical supplies and potentially transport to the Libyan opposition, but no military hardware.
Russia has already accused the allies of overstepping their UN remit by carrying out strikes on Gaddafi’s ground forces and warned the West against arming the rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was obvious Libya was “ripe for reforms”, but Libyans themselves must decide without influence from outside.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday 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 jets had attacked a government armoured vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the besieged western 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, on Tuesday. It said several civilian buildings were destroyed and some people wounded.
Aid agencies are increasingly worried about a lack of food and medicines, especially in towns such as Misrata where a siege by Gaddafi’s forces deprives them of access.
Government troops killed 18 civilians in Misrata on Tuesday, a rebel spokesman in the city said, and soldiers are still shelling and fighting skirmishes with rebels.
“There are skirmishes today. Tanks bombard the city every now and then,” he said. “Snipers are still positioned in Tripoli Street (in the centre of Misrata).”
But a blockade of Misrata’s Mediterranean port by pro-Gaddafi forces has now ended, allowing two ships to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate people wounded in the fighting, the spokesman said.
Protection of civilians remains the most urgent goal of the air strikes, and British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Gaddafi’s supporters of “murderous attacks” on Misrata.
In Kampala, a minister said Uganda would consider an asylum application from Gaddafi, as it would for anyone seeking refuge in the east African country.
Al Arabiya television reported that Uganda would welcome Gaddafi after western and other states suggested the Libyan leader should go into exile to end the conflict in his country.
In Oslo, the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy said Gaddafi must leave power but gave no indication of the circumstances in which that might take place. “He has to leave power,” Van Rompuy told reporters after a meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Agencies