Nato air strikes ‘help drive back Gaddafi forces’

libyan rebels said Nato air strikes yesterday helped them drive Muammar Gaddafi’s forces out of a hard-fought-over eastern city that is the gateway to the opposition’s stronghold.

Four air strikes largely stopped what had been heavy shelling of Ajdabiya by government forces, rebel battlefield commander and spokesman Col Hamid Hassy said.

Nato’s leader of the operation said the strikes destroyed 11 tanks near Ajdabiya and another 14 near Misrata, the only city rebels still hold in the western half of Libya.

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Col Hassy said Gaddafi’s forces fled the western gate of Ajdabiya and by mid-afternoon had been pushed back about 40 miles west of the city. However, sporadic shelling could still be heard around western Ajdabiya.

Mohammed Idris, the supervisor of the hospital in Ajdabiya, said 38 people died in the fighting over the weekend, including 20 Gaddafi fighters and three rebels killed yesterday.

The main front line in Libya’s uprising runs along a highway on the country’s northern Mediterranean coast that leads out of the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi in the opposition-held eastern half of the country and toward the regime’s western stronghold in the capital Tripoli.

Government forces are trying to regain territory lost to the opposition, which wants to topple Gaddafi after more than four decades in power. The Gaddafi loyalists have been pounding Ajdabiya in their most sustained offensive since being driven back west by international air strikes last month.

If Gaddafi’s forces took the city, they would have a clear path to Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city about 100 miles away along the coast.

“If he controls Adjabiya, he makes us feel like we are unsafe because he can move anywhere in the east,” Mr Hassy said.

The rebels claimed success as South African President Jacob Zuma and the heads of Mali and Mauritania arrive in Tripoli to try to broker a ceasefire. Gaddafi has ignored the ceasefire he announced after western air strikes were authorised last month, and the government has rejected the rebels’ conditions for a stop in fighting.

Rebels had been growing critical of Nato, which accidentally hit opposition fighters in deadly airstrikes twice this month. They have complained that the alliance was too slow and imprecise, but Mr Hassy said yesterday it is getting better.

“To tell you the truth, at first Nato was paralysed but now they have better movement and are improving,” he said.

Nato is operating under a UN resolution authorising a no-fly zone air strikes to protect Libyan civilians. The strikes, initially conducted under US leadership, helped knock Gaddafi’s forces back just as they were at the doorstep of Benghazi.

The commander of the Nato operation, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, stressed in a Nato statement that the point of the air strikes was to protect civilians, not to work hand-in-hand with the rebels.

“The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime. To help protect these civilians we continued to strike these forces hard,” Lt Gen Bouchard said.

Nato noted that is enforcing the no-fly zone on both sides, having intercepted a rebel MiG-23 fighter jet that it forced back to the airport on Saturday.

In Ajdabiya, shelling could be heard from the hospital in the central part of the city Sunday afternoon.

In the embattled city of Misrata, the lone rebel outpost in the west of the country, residents said shelling continued Sunday, killing one and wounding two others seriously.

“We woke up at 7am from the tank fire,” said a doctor working at the local hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Libya’s third largest city has been pounded without cease for more than a month by Gaddafi’s heavy weapons, but the rebels have managed to hold out.

MUBARAK DENIES MAKING A FORTUNE

TOPPLED Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has denied abusing his authority to amass wealth and property.

In a speech broadcast yesterday on the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, Mr Mubarak said he is willing to cooperate in any investigation to prove that he did not own any property abroad or have foreign bank accounts.

The news channel said the speech was recorded on Saturday after demonstrators gathered in Cairo to demand the country’s ruling military council launch an investigation into Mr Mubarak’s wealth. That has been a key demand of Egyptians, who forced him to leave office on February 11 after 18 days of mass demonstrations.