ZWITINA, Libya — Energized by international strikes on Moammar Gadhafi's forces, rebels advanced in an attempt to reclaim an eastern city under siege by the Libyan leader's troops on Monday as the U.S. commander of the allied campaign warned that a stalemate could emerge from the bombardment.
That could mean a longer conflict and an unclear end game as the U.S. and European countries try to calibrate how much their now three-day old air campaign — officially intended to protect civilians — should go toward actively helping the rebel cause. Henri Guaino, a top adviser to the French president, said the allied effort would last "a while yet."
Ali Zeidan, an envoy to Europe from the opposition-created governing council, told The Associated Press that rebels want to drive Gadhafi from power and see him tried — not have him killed. He said that while airstrikes have helped, the opposition needs more weapons to win the fight.
"We are able to deal with Gadhafi's forces by ourselves" as long as it's a fair fight, he said in Paris. "You see, Gadhafi himself, we are able to target him, and we would like to have him alive to face the international or the Libyan court for his crime .... We don't like to kill anybody ... even Gadhafi himself."
Gadhafi forces are currently besieging two rebel-held cities — Misrata in the west and Ajdabiya in the east. So far, the international airstrikes do not seem to have targeted those troops, which have repeatedly shelled both cities. So far, allied bombardment has concentrated on knocking out Libyan air defenses, but a significant test of international intentions will be whether eventually the strikes by ship-fired cruise missiles and warplanes will try to break those sieges by targeting those troops on the ground.
Doing so would appear to come under the U.N. mandate for the strikes, which allows countries to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya.
But even if that happens, the fight is not over. Instead, Libya could end up divided between the rebel-held east and mainly regime-controlled west, with Gadhafi largely unable to move against opposition areas without his forces being devastated by allied strikes. If rebel fighters were to then try to attack regime-held cities and march on Tripoli to oust Gadhafi, it is unclear what the U.S. and European stance would be.
In Washington, the American general running the assault said there is no direct coordination between the allies and rebels and no attempt to provide air cover for their operations. Gen. Carter Ham said Gadhafi might cling to power once the bombardment finishes, setting up a stalemate with allied nations enforcing a no-fly zone.
In the immediate term, rebels sought to turn to the offensive, only days after they were in a frenzied retreat from advancing Gadhafi forces. The first round of allied airstrikes late Saturday and early Sunday smashed a pro-Gadhafi tank column that had been advancing on the rebels' capital, Benghazi, in the east of the country.
Now with Benghazi relieved, the opposition was moving west, trying to break the Gadhafi siege that has been pounding Ajdabiya since before the allied campaign began. Rebel fighters on Monday pushed without resistance down the highway between the two cities — littered with burned out tanks and armored personnel carriers hit in the airstrikes — until they reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya.
Along the way, they swept into the nearby oil port of Zwitina, just northeast of the city, which was also the scene of heavy fighting last week — though now had been abandoned by regime forces. There, a power station hit by shelling on Thursday was still burning, its blackened fuel tank crumpled, with flames and black smoke pouring out.
In a field of dunes several miles (kilometers) outside Ajdabiya, around 150 fighters massed. Some stood on the dunes with binoculars to survey the positions of pro-Gadhafi forces sealing off the entrances of the city. Ajdabiya itself was visible, black smoke rising, apparently from fires burning from fighting in recent days.
"There are five Gadhafi tanks and eight rocket launchers behind those trees and lots of 4x4s," said one rebel fighter, Fathi Obeidi, standing on a dune and pointing at a line of trees between his position and the city.
Gadhafi forces have ringed the city's entrance and were battling with opposition fighters inside, rebels said. The plan is for the rebel forces from Benghazi "to pinch" the regime troops while "those inside will push out," Obeidi said. He said a special commando unit that defected to the opposition early on in the uprising was inside the city leading the defense.
The rebel fighters that advanced from Benghazi were a ragtag bunch — the "citizen fighters" that have been the main rebel force since the beginning, local citizens of the east who took up weapons but have little or no military training. The fighters in the dunes Monday had assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, along with several anti-aircraft guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks.
Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.
"They were running, by foot and in small cars," he said. "The balance has changed a lot. But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi's people are professional fighters."
Rebels defended their support of the international intervention into Libya — apparently feeling the sting of criticism from other Libyans and Arabs who warned the country could be divided or collapse into a civil war.
"Libya will not turn into Somalia or Iraq. It will not be divided. We are battling — the Libyan people — are battling a gang of mercenaries," Mohammed al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the stronghold of Misrata, told Al-Jazeera on Monday.
Oil prices held above $102 a barrel after the second night of allied strikes in the OPEC nation raised fears of prolonged fighting that has already slowed Libyan oil production to a trickle.
Guaino, the French presidential adviser, said two nights of bombing runs and missile attacks had hobbled Libya's air defenses, stalled Gadhafi's troops and all but ended attacks on civilians. A cruise missile late Sunday blasted Gadhafi's residential compound near his iconic tent, and fighter jets destroyed a line of tanks moving on the rebel capital.
It was not known where Gadhafi was when the missile hit Sunday, but it seemed to show that he is not safe.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said late Sunday that the U.S. expects turn over control of the operation to a coalition headed by France, Britain or NATO "in a matter of days," reflecting concern that the U.S. military was stretched thin by its current missions. Turkey was blocking NATO action, which requires agreement by all 28 members of the alliance.
Since the airstrikes began, the number of civilians fleeing Libya has decreased as Libyans in particular wait out the rapidly changing situation, the U.N. refugee agency said Monday. Last week, as rebels were retreated Gadhafi's advance, the stream of civilians crossing into Egypt alone reached 3,000 a day. Then, after the no-fly zone was imposed Friday, the number fell to about 1,500 a day, said UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes.
In Cairo, a group of Libyans angry at the international intervention in their homeland blocked the path of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon following his meeting at the Arab League on Monday.
Ban had finished talks with the Arab League chief Amr Moussa and left the organization's headquarters in Cairo to walk around nearby Tahrir Square, the centerpiece of Egyptian uprising that last month toppled Hosni Mubarak, when dozens of Libyan protesters converged on him and his security detail.
The Libyans, carrying pictures of Gadhafi and banners critical of the United States and United Nation, blocked Ban's path, forcing him to return to the league and leave from another exit.
Al-Shalchi reported from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.