Rebel forces claim victory in key Libyan city

March 26, 2011

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) — Rebel forces claimed to control a strategically located city in eastern Libya on Saturday, a week after coalition troops began airstrikes aimed at protecting civilians.

Opposition fighters took control of Ajdabiya overnight after allied fighter jets bombed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s tanks that were entrenched at the city’s gates, opposition spokesman Jalal al-Gallal said.

Rebel troops were combing the city’s streets Saturday, looking to see if any of Gadhafi’s forces remained, he said.

CNN was not able to independently verify who controlled the city, and Libyan government officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

On Friday, government officials said coalition airstrikes were providing cover for rebels to advance toward Ajdabiya. The city is a gateway to oil-rich eastern Libya and a key stopping point on the way to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

“This is immoral, illegal and it was not authorized by the (UN) Security Council,” government spokesman Ibrahim Mussa told reporters.

Coalition leaders maintained that their mission was enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting civilians.

“When we see regime forces attacking civilians, we will do everything we can to stop those attacks,” said Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command.

Coalition fighter planes in a 24-hour period took out seven Libyan tanks threatening civilian populations, including in Ajdabiya, authorities said Friday.

Opposition and pro-government forces have been locked in a fierce battle over the city.

Libyan state television reported March 15 that “Ajdabiya has been cleansed from mercenaries and terrorists connected to al Qaeda,” and later said Gadhafi’s forces were in control of the city.

Opposition leaders disputed that claim, saying government forces had only taken control of some of the city’s entrances.

Outside the city, displaced residents who fled the violence filled campsites scattered across the harsh terrain.

“We were driving and the rounds were landing around us. Rockets were hitting our roof,” Hussein Othman said. “We saw bodies in the street, but no one can bury them. Even the ambulances were getting shot at.”

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