Opposition forces reeling under heavy shelling from pro-Qadhafi forces have retreated from the oil town of Ras Lanuf, negating their earlier rapid advance towards regime strongholds to the West.

On Wednesday, government forces shelled the opposition militia with mortars and Russia-made Grad rockets. This accelerated the latter's retreat from Bin Jawad, and then from Ras Lanuf, an important oil town, home to a major refinery. The frontline in the Libyan conflict has now shifted 200 km further east of the regime stronghold of Sirte.

The opposition retreat has been dramatic, for on Monday anti-Qadhafi forces had advanced to the village of Nawfaliya, 20 km west of Bin Jawad, and were within striking distance of Sirte, home to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi. But, faced with stiff resistance on their way to Sirte, the opposition was forced to retreat. The anti-Qadhafi forces had on Tuesday pulled back to Ras Lanuf. But pursued by the better armed regime fighters, they seemed to have entirely lost their hold over the town. The fall of Ras Lanuf has again exposed the defences of Ajdabiyah, which is only 160 km away from Benghazi, the opposition's de facto capital.

Al Jazeera is reporting that western forces appear to have launched air strikes between Ras Lanuf and Brega, the last major oil town, before Ajdabiyah can be approached. But so far, these strikes have been unable to retard the opposition's retreat.

Intensity of strikes

Anti-regime fighters are apprehensive about the intensity of air strikes, as on Wednesday, the NATO alliance has taken over the command and control of enforcing the no-fly zone, mandated by the United Nations to prevent attacks on civilians. Turkey, an important member of NATO, is apparently emphatic that the air strikes are ordered strictly in accordance with the U.N. mandate.

Regarding arming the rebels, there are two major concerns which are being aired pending a final decision. First, the transfer of weapons might entail posting American troops for the purpose of training. This could be interpreted as a violation the U.N. resolution, which stands opposed to the deployment of foreign ground forces in Libya.

Second, senior officials in the U.S. establishment are fearful that weapons may get transferred to Al-Qaeda elements which might have infiltrated the opposition ranks.

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