Video: Libya rebel advance follows allied airstrikes

  1. Closed captioning of: Libya rebel advance follows allied airstrikes

    >>> rattled tripoli tonight, and also for the first time, moammar gadhafi 's home town of sert, sending his troops in retreat. we also got word late this afternoon that nato has agreed to assume full command of allied military operations over libya. while american war planes will remain in the fight, the change of command allows the u.s. to take a lower profile, at a time president obama is facing criticism about the decision to intervene in the first place. tomorrow, he will defend that decision in an early evening address to the american people . we'll begin our coverage in benghazi with richard engel . what's the latest in there?

    >> reporter: good evening, lester. rebels made rapid advances. mostly they followed a path of destruction created by western air strikes. there was no resistance. western air strikes have been more devastating than the rebels expected, obliterating dozens of gadhafi tanks and armored personnel carriers . craters show how strong the air strikes were in. some of the tanks were even melted. air strikes opened a corridor the rebels are simply driving through, meeting no resistance. roads that were controlled by gadhafi 's trooped only yesterday are now crowded with civilians returning home. rebels direct traffic and take away tanks that can be salvaged. in this town seized by rebels today and where people play on gadhafi 's anti-aircraft guns, we saw signs that gadhafi 's forces beat a quick retreat. some left behind their uniforms. meals where the troops slept were half eaten. rebels sold us gadhafi 's forces and mercenaries smoked narcotics and raped prisoners before leaving the town. claims we could not verify. this is the biggest retreat of gadhafi 's forces since western air strikes began. what's unclear is if gadhafi is simply pulling back the troops he has left for a final defensive stand or if his army is truly collapsing. in just 48 hours , the rebels have advanced from bene ghazi through ajdabiyah to bin jawad, a distance of 55 miles. if they can pass sirte, the rebels ' plan is to join the opposition inside the city of misurata and push to tripoli. rebels warn if western military stops or slows down, all could be lost. the big test will likely be sirte, gadhafi 's hometown. a battle there could prove to be

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/28/2011 12:49:44 AM ET 2011-03-28T04:49:44

Libya's ramshackle rebel army has pushed west to retake a series of towns from the forces of Moammar Gadhafi who are being pounded by Western airstrikes.

Emboldened by the help of the airstrikes, the rebels have rapidly reversed military losses in their five-week insurgency and regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.

Rebels said Sunday they now had their sights on the coastal town of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and an important military base about 150 km (90 miles) further along the coast.

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On Monday, a rebel spokesman said the town was captured by rebel forces. No independent verification was immediately available.

Celebratory gunfire was heard in rebel stronghold of Benghazi, NBC's Richard Engel reported Monday.

A Reuters reporter saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns leaving Sirte and moving westwards toward Tripoli on Sunday, along with dozens of civilian cars carrying families and stuffed with personal belongings.

"We want to go to Sirte today. I don't know if it will happen," said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with 100 others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machineguns.

The advance along Libya's Mediterranean coast by a poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels suggested that Western strikes under a U.N. no-fly zone were shifting the battlefield dynamics dramatically, in the east at least.

The rebels are now back in control of the main oil terminals in the east -- Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk -- while Gadhafi appears to be retrenching in the west.

Misrata fighting
Nearer the capital, Gadhafi's forces fought rebels in the center of Misrata, Libya's third city, to try to consolidate his grip on western Libya. Misrata is the only western city still in rebel hands and has been sealed off for weeks.

A resident called Saadoun told Reuters by phone that at least eight people were killed and 24 wounded when Gadhafi's forces fired mortar shells while attacking Misrata from the west in a day of fighting.

Pro-Gadhafi snipers were also pinning down rebel forces but late Sunday night the fighting died down.

A rebel called Mohammed told Reuters by phone that pro-Gadhafi forces controlled "only one small area, a couple of streets" in the western part of the city.

Residents told Reuters they were having to use wells to get water and that medicines were in short supply.

At least six blasts resonated in Tripoli Sunday night, followed by long bursts of anti-aircraft fire by Libyan forces. Libyan television said there had been airstrikes on the "civilian and military areas" in the capital.

Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live footage of Gadhafi in a car in his Tripoli compound where hundreds of supporters waved green flags and chanted slogans. Gadhafi could not be seen in the white car but the TV said he was in it.

Sunday, NATO agreed to take full command of military operations in Libya after a week of heated negotiations, officials said, as Washington seeks to scale back its role in another Muslim country after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Western airstrikes had "eliminated" Gadhafi's ability to move his heavy weapons.

Gates also raised the possibility that Gadhafi's government could splinter and said an international conference in London on Tuesday would discuss political strategies to help bring an end to Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

Libya accused NATO of "terrorizing" and killing its people as part of a global plot to humiliate and weaken the North African country.

The government says Western-led air attacks have killed more than 100 civilians, a charge denied by the coalition which says it is protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces and targeting only military sites to enforce the no-fly zone.

"The terror people live in, the fear, the tension is everywhere. And these are civilians who are being terrorized every day," said Mussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman.

"We believe the unnecessary continuation of the airstrikes is a plan to put the Libyan government in a weak negotiating position. NATO is prepared to kill people, destroy army training camps and army checkpoints and other locations."

Ibrahim acknowledged that rebel forces in the east were advancing westwards but declined to give any details on the retreat of government troops.

He said three Libyan civilian sailors were killed in a coalition airstrike on a fishing harbor in the city of Sirte Saturday.

Oil impact
Now that the rebels have regained control of key oil ports, they are making tentative plans to exploit Libya's most valuable natural resource. But production is at a trickle, the foreign oil workers and their vital expertise have fled the country, and even talk of a marketing deal with Qatar seems murky at best.

"As they move round the coast, of course, the rebels will increasingly control the exit points of Libya's oil," British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC. "That will produce a very dynamic and a very different equilibrium inside Libya. How that will play out in terms of public opinion and the Gadhafi regime remains to be seen."

The agreement with the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar could allow the rebels to exploit Libya's vast oil reserves — most of which are in the eastern territory they control. With no ships coming or going, Libya's tanks are full to the brim. Until they are emptied, there's nowhere to store any oil that is pumped from the ground.

Qatar, which has conducted at least one sortie over Libya, is the only Arab country known to have actively joined with the international force.

"We trust them, so basically they are the ones who are going to market our oil for us," Ali Tarhouni, the rebel finance official, told The Associated Press on Friday. "For Qatar there's no words to describe what they've done for the Libyan cause."

Officials at Qatar's ministry of energy and industry could not be reached for comment. Executives with the Arabian Gulf Oil Co., the National Oil Co. subsidiary in the east that broke free from its parent company, also could not be reached. Repeated calls to Libya's oil minister went unanswered.

Eastern oil officials said over a week ago they were still producing about 100,000 barrels per day from two key fields. But it was unclear whether such levels were sustainable given the security problems across the country and the exodus of foreign workers from the vital sector.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency said recently it believed that Libyan oil production had "slowed to a trickle" while exports had "ground to a halt." The IEA said it believed it could take months for Libyan oil to reappear on the world market.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A photo said to show people gathering during recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya. The content, date and location of the image could not be independently verified.
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    Above: Slideshow (81) Conflict in Libya
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    Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years

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