libya - Reuters - March 26 2011
Rebel fighters celebrate by waving a Kingdom of Libya flag atop a destroyed tank on the outskirts of the town of Ajdabiyah, March 26, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Libyan rebels regained control of the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya on Saturday after international airstrikes on Muammar Gadhafi's forces, in the first major turnaround for an uprising that once appeared on the verge of defeat.

Ajdabiya's sudden fall to Gadhafi's troops spurred the swift UN resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader's military.

The UN Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power.

Rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air by buildings riddled with bullet-holes after an all-night battle that suggested the tide is turning against Gadhafi's forces in the east.

A Reuters correspondent saw half a dozen wrecked tanks near the eastern entrance to the town and the ground strewn with empty shell casings. There were also signs of heavy fighting at the western gate, the last part of the town taken from government troops.

Stores and houses were shuttered after the weeklong siege that left residents without electricity or drinking water, but drivers honked horns in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired their guns into the air.

Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with an RPG in his hands, says the city's eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations. "All of Ajdabiya is free," he said.

"Everything was destroyed last night by our forces," said rebel fighter Sarhag Agouri. Witnesses and rebel fighters said the whole town was in rebel hands by late morning.

Capturing Ajdabiyah is a big morale boost for the rebels after two weeks spent on the defensive.

Gadhafi's better-armed forces halted an early rebel advance near the major oil export terminal of Ras Lanuf and pushed them back to their stronghold of Benghazi until Western powers struck Gadhafi's positions from the sea and air.

Air strikes on Ajdabiyah on Friday afternoon seem to have been decisive.

On Friday, the U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya, but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."

"Instead, the focus was on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata," Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

In Washington, a U.S. military spokeswoman said the coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air sorties in the past 24 hours attacking Gadhafi's artillery, mechanized forces and command and control infrastructure.

Western governments hope the raids, launched a week ago with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the balance of power in favor of the Arab world's most violent popular revolt.

In Tripoli, explosions were heard early on Saturday, signaling possible new strikes by warplanes or missiles.

Gadhafi offers promotions

Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief news reports of Western air strikes. Mostly it showed footage -- some of it grainy images years old -- of cheering crowds waving green flags and carrying portraits of Gadhafi.

Neither Gadhafi nor his sons have been shown on state television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his Tripoli compound on Wednesday.

State TV said the "brother leader" had promoted all members of his armed forces and police "for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault".

The United States said Gadhafi's ability to command and sustain his forces was diminishing.

Officials and rebels said aid organizations were able to deliver some supplies to the western city of Misrata but were concerned because of government snipers in the city centre.

Gadhafi's forces shelled an area on the outskirts of the city, killing six people including three children, a rebel said.

Misrata has experienced some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and Gadhafi's forces since an uprising began on February 16.

At African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU commission chairman Jean Ping said on Friday the organization was planning to facilitate peace talks in a process that should end with democratic elections.

It was the first statement by the AU, which had opposed any form of foreign intervention in the Libya crisis, since the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone last week and air strikes began on Libyan military targets.