Muammar Gaddafi’s forces seized a strategic town in eastern Libya on Tuesday, opening the way to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi while world powers failed to agree to push for a no-fly zone.
The small town of Ajdabiyah was all that stood between the relentless eastward advance of Libyan government troops and the second city of Benghazi and lies on a road junction from where Gaddafi’s forces could attempt to encircle the rebel stronghold.
“The town of Ajdabiyah has been cleansed of mercenaries and terrorists linked to the al Qaeda organization,” state television said, referring to the rebels fighting to end Gaddafi’s 41 years of absolute power.
As his survival looks more likely, foreign powers face hard decisions over whether to isolate him or seek some form of rapprochement. They are united in condemning his bloody crackdown, but show little appetite or consensus for action to support an uprising inspired by the ouster of Egypt and Tunisia’s presidents.
The international community has been discussing a no-fly zone for three weeks, while rebels have faced daily attacks from Gaddafi’s war planes.
Government jets opened up with rocket fire on a rebel checkpoint at the western entrance to Ajdabiyah, then unleashed a rolling artillery barrage on the town and a nearby arms dump, following the same pattern of attack that has pushed back rebels more than 100 miles in a week-long counter-offensive.
At least one missile hit a residential area. Residents and rebels piled into cars and pickups to flee town on highways toward Benghazi or Tobruk, which are still in rebel hands.
“The battle is lost. Gaddafi is throwing everything against us,” said a rebel officer who gave his name as General Suleiman.
As well as the coastal road to Benghazi, there is also a 400 km (250 mile) desert road straight to Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, that would cut off Benghazi. But it was not clear whether Gaddafi’s forces were strong enough to open a second front and if they could operate with such long supply lines.
Libyan League for Human Rights chief Soliman Bouchuiguir, said in Geneva if Gaddafi attacked Benghazi, a city with 670,000 people and the rebels’ provisional National Council, there would be “a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda.”