AJDABIYA, Libya — Libyan rebels battled to hold a strategic eastern city against a punishing offensive by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, voicing anger and frustration at the West for not coming to their aid.
At the same time, government troops heavily shelled the last main rebel bastion near the capital.
Charred vehicles, bullet-riddled pickup trucks and an overturned tank littered the desert highway where pro-Gadhafi forces had fought up to the entrance of the key eastern city of Ajdabiya.
An Associated Press Television News cameraman counted at least three bodies by the side of the road, evidence of fierce battles.
Government troops were bringing in a stream of truckloads of ammunition, rockets and supplies — signs of an intensified effort by the Libyan leader to retake control of the country he has ruled with an iron fist for more than four decades.
The rebels lashed out at the West as the latest international effort to impose a no-fly zone over Libya stumbled along. Supporters in the U.N. Security Council were trying to push through a resolution to impose such a move along with other measures aimed at preventing Gadhafi from bombing his people, but Russia and Germany have expressed doubts.
“People are fed up. They are waiting impatiently for an international move,” said Saadoun al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata, the last rebel-held city in western Libya, which came under heavy shelling Wednesday.
“What Gadhafi is doing, he is exploiting delays by international community. People are very angry that no action is being taken against Gadhafi’s weaponry.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to accept an immediate cease-fire.
He warned Gadhafi’s forces against a march on Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital in the east, saying that “a campaign to bombard such an urban centre would massively place civilian lives at risk.”
Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000, is the gateway to the rebel-held eastern half of Libya and if Gadhafi troops take it, Benghazi would likely be their next target.
A powerful regime force advancing from the west has been relentlessly bombarding Ajdabiya the past two days, raining rockets and artillery and tank shells on the city, sending most of its population fleeing.
Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who is supporting the opposition, told reporters in New York on Wednesday he expects a no-fly resolution to be adopted, hopefully “within the next 10 hours” and with a provision that will also allow air strikes.
He said according to information the Libyan Mission has received, Gadhafi is preparing for two operations:One against the eastern city of Ajdabiya, which is already under siege using mercenaries in more than 400 vehicles that are already en route, and one against mountain villages in the west where tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons are being gathered for an assault.
Dabbashi said according to his information, Gaddhafi has given instructions to “destroy everything and kill whoever you find in Ajdabiya, and don’t spare any lives,” and to destroy all the Berber villages which Dabbashi said would constitute “ethnic cleansing.”
Four New York Times journalists covering the fighting in Libya were reported missing Wednesday, and the newspaper held out hope that they were alive and in the custody of the Libyan government.
Editors last heard from the journalists on Tuesday as they were covering the retreat of rebels from the town of Ajdabiya, and Libyan officials told the newspaper they were trying to locate the four, executive editor Bill Keller said in a statement.
The Times said there were unconfirmed reports that Libyan forces had detained the foursome.
“We are grateful to the Libyan government for their assurance that if our journalists were captured they would be released promptly and unharmed,” Keller said.
The missing journalists are Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, the newspaper’s Beirut bureau chief; Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer; and photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario. In 2009, Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban and later rescued by British commandos.
Habib al-Obeidi, a doctor at Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi, said that a colleague in Ajdabiya had told him 25 people were killed when pro-Gadhafi forces struck civilian cars fleeing the city. That report could not be independently confirmed.
Hundreds of pro-Gadhafi troops were lined up with dozens of tanks and other heavy equipment at the arches over the highway marking Ajdabiya’s western gates. The AP and other journalists brought to the scene by government escorts saw regime forces bringing in large truckloads of ammunition and equipment — a sign that that the troops were gearing up to try to sweep through Ajdabiya and likely beyond.
As journalists arrived, the troops at the gates fired automatic weapons and anti-aircraft guns in the air, waving green flags and chanting, “God, Moammar, Libya: That is enough.” Grafitti on nearby buildings that read “Moammar the dog” had beem painted over with new graffiti of “long live Moammar.” Some buildings had bullet holes, and a bloodstained green army jacket was left on the ground along with discarded ammunition boxes.
Rebel fighters, however, continued to hold out in the city, 480 miles (800 kilometres) southeast of Tripoli, even using their meagre supply of antiquated aircraft to strike Gadhafi’s troops.
Rebels in Benghazi had sent reinforcements, moving in within a few miles of Ajdabiya and battling with government forces on the eastern side of the city, said a local activist, Abdul-Bari Zwei, and another activist in Benghazi in touch with fighters on the ground in the city.
At nightfall, the opposition cut off electricity in Ajdabiya — which is almost empty of families, leaving only men — so they could fight in the cover of darkness, said Zwei. Rebel fighters had succeeded in driving away Gadhafi troops at the southern entrance to the city, he said. The besieging force stil held Ajdabiya’s western entrance, though it had not entered the city.
Opposition officials said rebel warplanes struck at pro-Gadhafi forces near the western gate — the first time the rebels have struck from the air at troops on the ground. A gas station attendant on the highway said he saw a rebel helicopter firing rockets and machine-guns. A colonel in the pro-Gadhafi force, Moftah Sabia, said the rebels did have some aircraft that they had used against the troops.
The rebels claimed a small victory, hijacking a Libyan tanker ship that was transporting fuel from Greece to Gadhafi’s regime. Opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said fighters seized the ship on Tuesday off the Mediterranean coast and that it was carrying about 25,000 tons of fuel for Gadhafi.
The tanker, Anwaar Afriqya, was seen Wednesday docked in the port at Tobruk, a rebel-held city in the far eastern side of Libya. According to online shipping records, the Libyan-owned vessel departed several days ago from a Greek refinery port and had been due to arrive Tuesday in the western oil port of Zawiya.
Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, warned the rebels the regime was closing in on them and urged them to leave the country.
“We don’t want to kill, we don’t want revenge, but you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: leave, go in peace to Egypt,” he said in an interview with Lyon, France-based EuroNews television. “Military operations are over. Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi. Whatever the decision, it will be too late.”
Gheriani said rebels in Benghazi would be ready for an attack.
“A large percentage of Benghazi’s population is armed. Can Gadhafi bomb the city? Sure he can. Can he go in? I don’t think so,” he told The Associated Press. “Also, I think it is too far for his supply lines.”
Gheriani said anti-aircraft equipment has been deployed, and the army mobilized, although he didn’t know where. There have been few signs in recent days of the rebels digging in defensive preparations on the city’s outskirts.
The city’s loss would be a major setback to the rebels, who less than two weeks ago were poised to march on Tripoli, the capital, and had appeared capable of sweeping Gadhafi out of power, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. But the regime’s better armed and organized military has reversed the tide.
Gadhafi’s forces also launched an attack on Misrata — which for days has been under blockade, its population running out of supplies. The barrage came a day after the government recaptured the last rebel-held city west of Tripoli, solidifying his control over the coastline from the capital to the Tunisian border.
“There is co-ordinated shelling by Gadhafi’s brigades firing artillery and machine-guns from three different city entrances,” al-Misrati said, speaking by satellite phone.
Mohammed Ali, an opposition activist based in Dubai, said he was in contact with people in Misrata and water, electricity and cellphone service had been cut off. At least eight people were killed and 11 injured in the attack, he said, although the toll could not be confirmed.