AJDABIYA, Libya — A barrage of U.S.-led airstrikes opened the door for Libyan rebels to retake the eastern city of Ajdabiya Saturday, handing President Barack Obama a tangible example of progress as he defends the military action to war-weary Americans.
The administration has been under pressure to better explain why the U.S. was embroiling itself in another Muslim conflict and to clarify what America's continuing role will be as it begins to turn control of the week-old operation over to NATO.
Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
Obama cited "significant success" in the war Saturday, and he and others defended the U.S. intervention as lawful and critical to save thousands of lives and stabilize a strategically vital region in the Middle East.
Farther west, forces loyal to Gadhafi eased attacks on Misrata after coalition forces hit some of their positions, rebels said.
French warplanes destroyed five Libyan military planes and two helicopters at Misrata air base in the past 24 hours, France's armed forces said. Spokesman Thierry Burkhard said all seven Libyan aircraft were destroyed as they were preparing to carry out attacks in the area.
"The shelling has stopped and now the warplanes of allies are above the sky of Misrata. The shelling stopped when the planes appeared in the sky. It seems this is their strategy," the rebel, Saadoun, told Reuters by telephone.Video: Libyan rebels recapture Ajdabiya from Gadhafi forces (on this page)
Misrata is the only big rebel stronghold left in the west of Libya and it is cut off from the main rebel force fighting Gaddafi's troops in the east. It has been encircled and under bombardment for weeks.
Dancing on tanks
In Ajdabiya, rebel fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air by buildings riddled with bulletholes after an all-night battle that suggested the tide is turning against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in the east.
"They (Western forces) were heavily involved, so the Libyan armed forces decided to leave Ajdabiya this morning," Khaled Kaim, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters.
He also accused Western coalition forces of directly aiding rebels fighting against Gadhafi.
"Everything was destroyed last night by our forces," said rebel fighter Sarhag Agouri. Witnesses and rebel fighters said the whole town was in rebel hands by late morning.Video: Expert: Rebels can't take Tripoli without NATO (on this page)
"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."
Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with an RPG in his hands, says 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.
Gadhafi loyalists had held the town, which commands the coastal road toward the capital Tripoli, since last week.
On Saturday morning the debris of the battle was scattered around the eastern gate, a Reuters witness said. Four destroyed Gadhafi tanks, ammunition boxes, and empty shell cases and boxes were scattered over the sand dunes.
Capturing Ajdabiya is a big morale boost for the rebels after two weeks spent on the back foot.
Gadhafi's better-armed forces halted an early rebel advance near the major oil export terminal of Ras Lanuf and pushed them back to their stronghold of Benghazi until Western powers struck Gadhafi's positions from the sea and air.
Air strikes on Ajdabiya on Friday afternoon seem to have been decisive.Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)
The African Union said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end the war, but NATO said its operation could last three months, and France said the conflict would not end soon.
In Washington on Saturday morning, a U.S. military spokeswoman said the coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air sorties in the previous 24 hours attacking Gadhafi's artillery, mechanized forces and command and control infrastructure.
Western governments hope the raids, launched a week ago with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the balance of power in favor of the Arab world's most violent popular revolt.
Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional, brief news reports of Western air strikes. Mostly it showed footage — some of it grainy images years old — of cheering crowds waving green flags and carrying portraits of Gadhafi.
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Neither Gadhafi nor his sons have been shown on state television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his Tripoli compound on Wednesday.
State TV said the "brother leader" had promoted all members of his armed forces and police "for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault."
The United States said Gadhafi's ability to command and sustain his forces was diminishing.
Officials and rebels said aid organizations were able to deliver some supplies to the western city of Misrata but were concerned because of government snipers in the city center.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.