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. Until Thursday, Gadhafi appeared to have grounded his air units. Thursday's weather in the area was windy and there were small sandstorms, conditions that may have kept NATO aircraft from flying.
The rebel military commander, Abdelfatah Younis, on Tuesday slammed NATO for being too slow to respond to rebel requests to attack pro-Gadhafi units.
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. Rebels who had been at the city's western gate appeared to have fled through the city and were retreating toward Benghazi. The Ajdabiya hospital, where the wounded from the aerial attack had been taken, was being evacuated Thursday night.
Rebel forces have been unable to hold their positions without NATO air support and have been driven out of towns they once controlled along Libya's main coastal highway since NATO assumed command of the operation last week from the United States. Loyalist and rebel forces had been waging a seesaw battle for Brega, about 50 miles from Ajdabiya, for the past week, but on Thursday the loyalists had gained the upper hand.
If the loyalists also occupy Ajdabiya, it would return the battle standoff between the two sides to the lines they had held on March 19, the day aircraft from the United States, Great Britain, and France began their attack on Gadhafi air defenses and military positions.
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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