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BREAKING: Air Strikes Hit Libyan Rebel Tanks, Spark ‘Mass Panic’ in Ajdabiyah

Posted on | April 7, 2011 | 10 Comments

News accounts are very confusing and contradictory at this point, but it appears that the Libyan rebels who had been trying to re-take the port city of Brega sustained a serious defeat today, and may even be prepared to abandon Ajdabiyah, 50 miles east of Brega on the coast highway. Here is a report from McClatchy News:

AJDABIYA, Libya — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s air force evaded the U.N.-ordered NATO-enforced no-fly zone on Thursday and destroyed three rebel tanks parked along a key highway here, triggering a rebel retreat that seemed to pave the way for a full pro-Gadhafi assault on the city of Ajdabiya.
Rebels at first had blamed NATO for the airstrike, which witnesses said killed between two and six rebel fighters. But Eman Boughaigis, a spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council in Benghazi, said the attack had actually been launched by a Gadhafi loyalist aircraft.
It was not immediately clear how the aircraft had evaded the no-fly zone, which the U.N. ordered last month to keep Gadhafi planes from attacking rebel forces. . . .
The tanks — three Soviet-built T-72s and a Soviet-built T-55 — had left Benghazi, the rebel capital, Wednesday to reinforce rebel positions near Brega, site of a strategic oil terminal where rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces have been battling for days. A rebel unit commander, Salah Saraj, 34, said the rebels had parked the tanks after NATO ordered them not to go forward.
A lone aircraft attacked the four tanks at about 11 a.m., according to another rebel fighter, Ahmed Salim Youssef, 25, who said he witnessed the attack. Three tanks suffered direct hits, Youssef said. Also hit was a bus carrying rebel fighters.
Youssef said the attack took place about 12 miles outside of Brega and that the aircraft made two passes at the tanks.
The assault apparently was carefully coordinated with Gadhafi loyalist ground troops. When the rebels abandoned their positions near the tanks, loyalist forces pursued, chasing the rebels to the western gate of Ajdabiya.
Ajdabiya was the last rebel redoubt before the capital of Benghazi, 100 miles away, but it appeared to be on the verge of being seized by loyalist forces Thursday evening. . . .

Other reports indicate that this was another friendly-fire error, like a previous misguided NATO air strike that killed 13 rebels. So like I said, it’s confusing at this point. Here is a video report that indicates the rebels are panicking, and some are pulling back from Ajdabiyah:

As you hear from this report, for Qaddafi’s forces to advance from Brega to Ajdabiyah would be very difficult, if NATO aircraft are on alert. But if Qaddafi’s air force is still actually capable of making attacks on the rebels, what the hell is NATO doing?

UPDATE: The Associated Press seems to believe this was a NATO friendly fire incident:

Rebel fighters claimed NATO airstrikes blasted their forces Thursday in another apparent mistake that sharply escalated anger about the military alliance’s efforts to cripple Libyan forces. At least five rebels were killed and more than 20 injured, a doctor said. . . .
“Down, down with NATO,” one fighter shouted as dozens of rebel vehicles raced eastward from the front, toward the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya.
Later, hundreds of cars poured out of Ajdabiya toward the de facto rebel capital, Benghazi, amid fears that pro-Gadhafi forces could use the disarray among rebel units to advance along the Mediterranean coastal road that serves as the lifeline for both sides. . . .
A rebel commander, Ayman Abdul-Karim, said he saw airstrikes hit tanks and a rebel convoy, which included a passenger bus carrying fighters toward Brega. He and other rebels described dozens killed or wounded, but a precise casualty toll was not immediately known. . . .
The rebel commander Adbul-Karim said the tops of rebel vehicles were marked with yellow under advice by NATO to identify the opposition forces. But rebels use tanks and other vehicles commandeered from the Libyan army — potentially making their convoys appear similar to pro-government units from the air.
The attack occurred about 18 miles (30 kilometers) from Brega, where rebel forces have struggled to break through government lines, he said.

So while there is confusion about whether this air strike was made by NATO or Qaddafi’s air force, this Associated Press account does appear to confirm the sense of panic in Ajdabiyah over the possibilty that Qaddafi’s troops will advance.

UPDATE II: Reuters also appears to believe this was a NATO friendly fire incident, but here’s the lead on their story:

Libya’s seven-week-old civil war is reaching stalemate, a senior U.S. general said on Thursday . . .

Like we needed a general to tell us that. But notice how this is now just a “civil war” in Libya, as if Operation Odyssey Dawn never happened and President Obama had never declared Qaddafi “must leave.” If Qaddafi had been vanquished, the headline would have been “Obama Wins,” but now that it looks like Qaddafi might hang on, the media want you to forget that Obama committed U.S. prestige to this fucked-up war.

UPDATE III: It appears to be the belief of the official rebel spokesman that the air attack came from Qaddafi’s forces:

A spokesperson for the opposition’s National Transitional Council, Imam Bugaighis, said the air strike near the Libyan oil-town of Brega is believed to have been by pro-Gadhafi forces and not by NATO war planes as initially reported from the field.
Bugaighis: “There is no evidence the strike was by NATO. The jet fighters were at low level and they bombed our Free Libyan forces.”
Reporter: Who was behind this attack?
Bugaighis: “Gadhafi’s regime, Colonel Gadhafi’s regime”

Of course, you see that this would reflect just as badly on NATO as if it were a friendly-fire incident. If NATO is supposed to be enforcing a no-fly zone, and yet Qaddafi’s air force is able to attack the rebels, where is the vaunted NATO air superiority that was supposed to make a decisive difference in Libya?

UPDATE IV: Another report of panic in Ajdabiyah:

Civilians and rebels fled Ajdabiya in their thousands yesterday on rumours that Colonel Muamar Qaddafi’s forces were charging towards the key eastern town, witnesses said.
Families packed into cars and trucks joined rebel military vehicles — pickups loaded with rocket launchers and machine guns — in a stampede north-east towards the rebel bastion Benghazi, some 160 kilometres away.


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