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Cautious rebels nose back into key Libya town.

Libya: Libyan rebels hoping to reclaim the key eastern town of Ajdabiya from forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi milled around between a bombed-out tank and a bullet-riddled mosque on its outskirts Sunday.

The landmarks, a legacy of coalition air strikes and combat two weeks ago, and the sound fresh shelling on the far side of the city underlined how the fortunes of war had turned against the insurgents in recent days.

On Saturday, they had retreated in panic as Kadhafi s fighters drove into the town shooting.

The incursion marked a significant loss of territory -- Ajdabiya, which had a pre-conflict population of around 100,000, is the last population centre before Benghazi, the rebel s eastern stronghold. It acts as a gateway on Libya s main coast road.

Now, on Sunday, the rebels were intent on taking back the town. But weeks of fighting had finally taught them caution. Their pared-down fighting force was now becoming experienced and learning strategies. Patience was now the better part of valour.

At a staging area several kilometres (miles) to the east of Ajdabiya, pick-up trucks mounted with big guns or with rocket launchers grafted from grounded helicopters gathered, amid a couple of trucks bearing multiple rocket launchers.

Some of the vehicles drove out on side roads to secure the area and ensure that Kadhafi s better trained forces were not seeking to outflank them and cut off their sole line of retreat.

Residents drove past. Some reported gunfire in the streets and intense shelling from Kadhafi s forces just to the west.

"There is a big building in the centre which had snipers on it. The freedom fighters took them out with heavy weapons," one man, Rafah Feraj, 45, said.

"It s not safe to go beyond the rounadbout in the centre because of the snipers," he added.

Another man, Brahim Saad, who had been in Ajdabiya helping to look for a friend s missing 20-year-old son, said he had visited the hospital and seen a dozen bodies from Saturday s fighting.

He could not say whether they were of rebel or regime fighters, or civilians. But the friend s son was not among them.

"It s not safe. We are going to Benghazi," he said.

Rebels manning a checkpoint at the eastern side of Ajdabiya said a scouting team had gone ahead and was to report back whether the fighters could move forward to another position.

Before that team returned, though, shelling sounding like ominous drums erupted in the short distance, and got a little closer.

Rebels replied with rockets. But some rebel vehicles moved back. Ajdabiya was clearly not yet in their hands.

Muscat Press and Publishing House SAOC 2011

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Apr 10, 2011
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