Gadhafi's forces adapt to airstrikes, pound rebels

AJDABIYA, Libya - (AP) - Moammar Gadhafi's ground forcesrecaptured a strategic oil town Wednesday and moved within strikingdistance of another major eastern city, nearly reversing the gainsrebels made since international airstrikes began. Rebels pleadedfor more help, while a U.S. official said government forces aremaking themselves harder to target by using civilian "battlewagons" with makeshift armaments instead of tanks. Western powers kept up the pressure to force Gadhafi out withnew airstrikes in other parts of Libya, hints that they may arm theopposition and intense negotiations behind the scenes to find acountry to give haven to Libya's leader of more than 40 years. Airstrikes have neutralized Gadhafi's air force and pounded hisarmy, but his ground forces remain far better armed, trained andorganized than the opposition. The shift in momentum back to the government's side is hardeninga U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition is probablyincapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention -either an all-out U.S.-led military assault on regime forces or adecision to arm the rebels. In Washington, congressional Republicans and Democrats pepperedsenior administration officials with questions about how long theU.S. will be involved in Libya, the costs of the operation andwhether foreign countries will arm the rebels. NATO is in the process of taking over control of the airstrikes,which began as a U.S.-led operation. Diplomats said they have givenapproval for the commander of the NATO operation, Canadian Gen.Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover on Thursday. Gadhafi's forces have adopted a new tactic in light of thepounding airstrikes have given their tanks and armored vehicles, asenior U.S. intelligence official said. They've left some of thoseweapons behind in favor of a "gaggle" of "battle wagons":minivans, sedans and SUVs fitted with weapons, said the official,who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sensitive U.S.intelligence on the condition and capabilities of rebel and regimeforces. Rebel fighters also said Gadhafi's troops were increasinglyusing civilian vehicles in battle. The change not only makes it harder to distinguish Gadhafi'sforces from the rebels, it also requires less logistical support,the official said. The official said airstrikes have degraded Gadhafi's forcessince they were launched March 19, but the regime forces stilloutmatch those of the opposition "by far," and few members ofGadhafi's military have defected lately. The disparity was obvious as government forces pushed backrebels about 100 miles in just two days. Therebels had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte,Gadhafi's hometown and a bastion of support for the longtimeleader, but under heavy shelling they retreated from Bin Jawwad onTuesday and from the oil port of Ras Lanouf on Wednesday. Gadhafi's forces were shelling Brega, another important oil cityeast of Ras Lanouf. East of the city in Ajdabiya, where many rebelshad regrouped, Col. Abdullah Hadi said he expected the loyalists toenter Brega by Wednesday night. "I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All weneed is air cover and we could do this. They should be helpingus," Hadi said.

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