Opposition forces backed by western air strikes are rapidly advancing westwards having recovered from the pro-Qadhafi forces, major strategic oil towns along the coastline.
After taking over on Saturday, Ajdabiyah, a major junction from where forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi were in a position to threaten Benghazi, The opposition-militia has re-taken two major oil towns — Brega, which has an oil export terminal, and, Ras Lanuf, well-known for its refinery.
The opposition has occupied both Brega and Ras Lanuf, apparently without a serious fight. Al Jazeera is reporting that in Ras Lanuf, government forces have pulled back with their heavy armour and artillery. The anti-Qadhafi forces have recovered ammunition and lighter weapons in the town.
From Ajdabiyah, the fluid frontline has now shifted to Bin Jawad, where Reuters reported that two dozen opposition vehicles were seen heading towards to the town centre. Analysts say the government forces may now be digging in deeper at Mr. Qadhafi's home base of Sirte, further to the west. The city is of vital importance, for the fall of Sirte opens the door towards capital Tripoli.
However, western forces would find it hard to justify under the U.N. mandate, air strikes in Sirte. Unlike Ajdabiyah, where pro-Qadhafi forces were threatening the safety of civilians, regime forces in Sirte were likely to be surrounded by supporters, and in all likelihood, may not be threatening civilian lives.
The government forces continue to hold Misurata, Libya's third largest city, further to the west of Sirte. However, intense aerial bombardment there has silenced tanks and artillery guns, which had, earlier, been heavily shelling the city from its outskirts.
Signalling that the opposition's sweeping military gains may not be permanent, Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaim said at a Tripoli press conference that government troops had staged a “tactical pullback.” He accused the West of “trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war”.
During the early stages of its campaign, the anti-Qadhafi forces had held the coastal oil towns, but had to retreat in the face of the heavy weapons that the regime had deployed. However, analysts point out that with western air strikes so far largely neutralising Mr. Qadhafi's heavy weaponry, the opposition militia, notwithstanding its poor training and discipline, now stands a better chance to advance.
A day after the town's takeover by the opposition, the decisive impact of the preceding air strikes on Friday in the battle for Ajdabiyah has become evident. Eyewitnesses saw six regime tanks wrecked by the strikes along one of the entrances to Ajdabiyah. Opposition fighters said once the regime's heavy armour was eliminated, it was followed by bitter fighting that spilled well into the night.
While air strikes proved decisive, it remains unclear, in the fog of war, whether western strikes managed to entirely evade all civilian targets, especially since the Qadhafi-regime had been earlier accused of embedding its tanks within population centres. On Saturday, western fighter jets also targeted the road from Ajdabiyah leading in the direction of Sirte.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said on Saturday that western strikes had not discriminated between soldiers and civilians.
“Tonight the air strikes against our nation continue with full power,” said Mr. Ibrahim. “We are losing many lives, military and civilians,” he added, pointing to the existence of a number of towns on the road between Ajdabiyah and Sirte
With the opposition-forces advancing, the treatment of prisoners of war in the Libyan conflict is now emerging as a new issue.
Anti-Qadhafi forces had in Ajdabiyah, reportedly seized, General Bilgasim Al-Ganga, one of Mr. Qadhafi's top commanders, who is now under arrest.