BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s forces attacked rebel fighters with a hail of machinegun and rocket fire on Tuesday, prompting a panicked, chaotic retreat beyond the town of Bin Jawad.
Rebels waiting on the open desert road leaped behind dunes and mounds of earth and shot at the Gaddafi troops as they arrived.
As the onslaught grew, the rebels ran to their pick-up trucks and sped off down the road to Bin Jawad, 150 km (100 miles) east of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.
Bullets zipped overhead and shells landed on and near the road as they retreated.
The Gaddafi forces appeared to end their attack about 5 km west of Bin Jawad but the rebels continued to pull back after reaching the town and by early afternoon were spread over several km on its eastern outskirts.
Rebel fighters voiced defiance despite the latest rout by Gaddafi’s better armed and organised troops.
Adil Serhani, 30, had a goat in the back of his pick-up and said he planned to slaughter the animal when, “God willing,” the rebels conquer Sirte.
But he admitted the rebels lacked leaders at the front, saying: “The commanders are in the barracks. There are no commanders.”
The rebel fighters had raced along the coastline retaking several oil terminals after Western warplanes began air strikes on Gaddafi positions in the east and west of the desert country on March 19.
But their charge westwards met resistance as they neared Sirte. Gaddafi forces used rockets, rocket propelled grenades and medium-calibre weapons to push them back to the small town of Nawfaliyah.
Tuesday began with Gaddafi’s forces firing heavy artillery towards the rebels waiting east of Nawfaliyah. Dozens of civilians fled the scene in cars.
One man stopped his car to berate the rebels as they waited by the road before Gaddafi’s troops arrived.
“Get yourselves up there and stop posing for pictures,” he shouted, meeting little response.
Some residents had fired on the retreating rebels from their houses in support of the pro-Gaddafi forces, said Ashraf Mohammed, a 28-year-old rebel wearing a bandolier of machine gun bullets.
“This is a problem road,” said 28-year-old rebel officer Hamad al-Awani, who appeared to be in charge of the group. “Yesterday we were hit by Gaddafi so we pulled back.”
Fleeing Nawfaliyah in a taxi, 49-year-old resident Mustafa Moussa said Gaddafi forces appeared to control the town and were backed up by armed militias formed of local residents.
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, editing by Diana Abdallah