AJDABIYA, Libya — Libyan rebels regained control of the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya on Saturday after international airstrikes crippled Moammar Gadhafi's forces, in the first major turnaround for an uprising that a week ago appeared on the verge of defeat. In a western city the opposition lost to Gadhafi, a resident said security agents had lists of rebel sympathizers and were dragging them from their homes.
Drivers honked in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired their guns into the air and danced on burned-out tanks that littered the road. Inside a building that had served as makeshift barracks for pro-Gadhafi forces, hastily discarded uniforms were piled on the floor.
"Without the planes we couldn't have done this. Gadhafi's weapons are at a different level than ours," said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya. "With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing."
Ajdabiya's sudden fall to Gadhafi's troops spurred the swift U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader's military.
Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with an RPG in his hands, said the city's eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations.
"All of Ajdabiya is free," he said.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Gadhafi's forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.
The government accused international forces of choosing sides in the fight and directly attacking Gadhafi's troops.
"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because they now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," said Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."
Earlier Friday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition's eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misrata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi's siege.
On Saturday, rebels in Ajdabiya hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of anti-aircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower. Later in the day, other rebels drove around and around a traffic circle, jubilantly shooting an assortment of weapons in the air — anti-aircraft weapons, AK-47s, RPGs.
Outside the city, Muftah el-Zwei was driving away, his backseat loaded with plastic bags filled with blankets and clothes that he picked up after going to his home in Ajdabiya for the first time in days.
"We went and checked it out, drove around the neighborhood and it looked OK. Hopefully we'll come back to stay tomorrow," he said.
On Friday, the U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya," but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. "We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."
Instead, the focus was on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
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