Libyan rebels danced on Moammar Gadhafi’s burned-out tanks Saturday after regaining the city of Ajdabiya, considered a key breakthrough in their push to overthrow the longtime Libyan leader.
"All of Ajdabiya is free," Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter, told The Associated Press as he and other rebels celebrated their success in the eastern city just a week after the eastern city fell to government forces.
The turnaround for the rebels followed days of airstrikes by an international coalition on government targets. Now, rebels say they are ready to push towards the oil port of Brega in the hopes of retaking that city on Sunday.
"We're succeeding in our mission," U.S. President Barack Obama said Saturday in a radio and internet address. "Because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians … have been saved."
CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed said the rebels, with only light weapons and pickup trucks, could not have forced their way through the entrances to Ajdabiya if the coalition strikes hadn’t taken out so much government firepower.
And the rebels have to control Ajdabiya before they can carry their campaign west to Brega and ultimately, Tripoli, the capital of Libya, she said.
"With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing," said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya.
Rebels insist that Gadhafi commands little support among ordinary Libyans, and the loss of an important battleground has put the leader on the defensive even more. Government officials, however, insist that the international strikes are killing civilians.
"They are now directly fighting against the armed forces," declared the country's deputy foreign minister. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."
Rebel momentum faltered
The strikes began a week ago to enforce a no-fly zone aimed at protecting civilians from forces loyal to Gadhafi. Calls for the no-fly-zone took on more urgency when government forces stepped up their attacks, rebel momentum seemed to falter and Ajdabiya fell.
On Friday, British and French jets destroyed a government artillery battery near Ajdabiya and left roads into the city littered with government tanks and vehicles.
On Saturday, rebels in Ajdabiya hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of anti-aircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower.
Although the United States has played a leadership role in the coalition, Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard is now in charge of the NATO mission.
Canada has committed six CF-18s to the Libya operation, and a seventh is in the area as a backup. Canadian jets have already been involved in strikes on Misrata, another city that has suffered at the hands of Gadhafi loyalists in the last week.