NEAR BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels fought on Thursday for control of the eastern Libyan oil town of Brega, a day after troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi drove them back across a coastal strip under a hail of rocket fire.
Some rebel forces had fallen back on Wednesday as far as the strategic town of Ajdabiyah, the gateway to the east and about 150 km (90 miles) south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Ajdabiyah was still in rebel hands on Thursday.
Rebels and Gaddafi’s forces have fought to-and-fro across a strip of land between Ajdabiyah and Bin Jawad for several weeks. The superior firepower of Gaddafi’s army has been dented, but not destroyed, by Western-led air strikes.
Rebels relying largely on pick-ups mounted with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles have been unable to hold on to gains despite almost two weeks of air strikes by U.S., French and British planes.
“There were clashes with Gaddafi’s forces around Brega at dawn,” said rebel fighter Rabia Ezela, waiting about 10 km (6 miles) outside Brega, where scores of vehicles had massed.
Rebels advancing closer to Brega came under rocket and mortar fire, a witness said. One rocket hit a rebel vehicle.
Brega is one of several oil towns along the fiercely contested coastal strip. Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, west of Brega, have both been retaken by Gaddafi’s forces. Zueitina, east of Brega, is still in rebel hands.
“God willing there will be more air strikes today, but we will advance no matter what,” said Muneim Mustafa, another fighter with an AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder.
Many rebels repeated their call for more and better weapons from the West or any country willing to offer them arms.
“We will take them from any country. Anyone who wants to help us, we have no problem with it, even Chad,” said Ziad al-Kheifasy, a rebel fighter at a checkpoint leading up to Brega. Libya fought with Chad in the 1980s.
Rebels complain that Gaddafi’s rockets, fired from Grad multiple rocket launchers, have a range that far outstrips anything they can throw back.
Many rebels blamed powerful rocket salvoes for this week’s rapid retreat from Bin Jawad, the town that marks roughly the furthest west point reached by rebels in recent weeks. Bin Jawad is about 525 km (330 miles) east of Tripoli.
“With Grad we could make it to Tripoli in a matter of days,” said rebel Ahmed Ali. Others echoed his appeal for rockets.
Even some rebels have said their forces, largely made up of enthusiastic but poorly trained fighters, need better command and discipline as well as better equipment. Their forces have often been out-manoeuvred and out-gunned.
Colonel Ahmad Bani, a rebel spokesman, told a news conference in Benghazi on Wednesday Gaddafi could deploy heavy weapons such as artillery, tanks and rocket launchers.
“We need weapons that can destroy such weapons. We are trying to gather whatever we can,” he said. “No matter how enthusiastic or courageous an individual may be, a Kalashnikov has no chance against such equipment.”
He said they were waiting to receive military equipment but did not say from which countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration had made no decision yet on whether to arm the rebels. Some lawmakers questioned the wisdom of such a move.
France, which led calls for military intervention, has said it is ready to discuss arming rebels with its coalition partners, but said this was not covered by the U.N. resolution.
Colonel Bani also said rebels faced difficulties communicating, adding: “We are in need of more advanced communications equipment.”
Communications at the front line largely seem to be based on mobile phones, although the network is patchy at best.
Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Dobbie