Explosion in Benghazi, Libya - AP - March 19, 2011
A huge explosions is seen over the outskirts of Benghazi after a plane of Gaddafi's forces was shot down over eastern Libya, Saturday, March 19, 2011. Photo by AP
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Libya state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment by the Western coalition.

Libya's rebels scrambled to try to exploit international strikes on Muammar Gadhafi's forces and go on the offensive, as some of the opposition's ragtag citizen-fighters charged ahead to fight troops besieging a rebel city Monday. But the rebellion's more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.

The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi's forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.

But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi's troops from attacking rebel cities - in line with the United Nations mandate to protect civilians - the U.S., at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.

In Washington, the American general running the assault said there is no attempt to provide air cover for rebel operations. Gen. Carter Ham said Gadhafi might cling to power once the bombardment finishes, setting up a stalemate between his side and the rebels, with allied nations enforcing a no-fly zone to ensure he cannot attack civilians.

Henri Guaino, a top adviser to the French president, said the allied effort would last a while yet.

Among the rebels, as well, there was a realization that fighting could be drawn out. Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.

"The balance has changed a lot," he said. "But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi's people are professional fighters."

Disorganization among the rebels could also hamper their attempts to exploit the turn of events. Since the uprising began, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country.

The disarray among the opposition was on display on Monday.

With Benghazi relieved, several hundred of the citizen fighters barreled to the west, vowing to break a siege on the city of Ajdabiya by Gadhafi forces, which have been pounding a rebel force holed up inside the city since before the allied air campaign began. The fighters pushed without resistance down the highway from Benghazi - littered with the burned out husks of Gadhafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers hit in the airstrikes - until they reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya.

Some of the fighters, armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers and truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, charged to the city outskirts and battled with Gadhafi forces in the morning. A number of rebels were killed before they were forced to pull back somewhat, said the spokesman for the rebels' organized military forces, Khalid al-Sayah.

By Monday afternoon, around 150 citizen-fighters were massed in a field of dunes several miles outside Ajdabiya. Some stood on the wind-swept dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gadhafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.

Gadhafi forces have ringed the city's entrance and were battling with opposition fighters inside, rebels said. The plan is for the rebel forces from Benghazi to pinch the regime troops while those inside will push out, Obeidi said. He said a special commando unit that defected to the opposition early on in the uprising was inside the city leading the defense.

So far, allied bombardment has concentrated on knocking out Libyan air defenses, but a significant test of international intentions will be whether eventually the strikes by ship-fired cruise missiles and warplanes will try to break the sieges of Ajdabiya and Misrata by targeting the Gadhafi troops surrounding them.