The mood in eastern Libya, a stronghold for revolutionaries, is darkening as anti-Gaddafi forces lose further ground on the vital coastal road and their calls for international assistance become yet more desperate.
Using heavy artillery and tanks, Gaddafi loyalists forced revolutionaries from the oil refinery town of Brega on Sunday, prompting a panicked regrouping nearly 40 miles east on the edge of Ajdabiya, a town of 120,000 that remains the only significant settlement between Gaddafi forces and the opposition capital of Benghazi. From there the highway runs for just 100 miles of flat, parched terrain of the type that has proven increasingly difficult for the rag-tag, lightly-armed anti-Gaddafi forces to defend.
Officials in Benghazi are already warning of the massacre of half a million people if Gaddafi forces bombard and enter the city. There is little doubt from the defiant citizens Ahram Online interviewed that many Benghazi citizens are prepared for a fight to the death.
‘‘Gaddafi is not fighting another army; he is fighting the Libyan people, he has to kill all the people of Benghazi to get in here, and will only get in over our bodies,” said Mohammed Sallah, 23, a medical student turned revolutionary who has been involved since the start. These sentiments are echoed all the way from the frontline to Benghazi. Eyewitnesses this morning said that anti-aircraft guns are being set up in key positions around the city.
The weekend was marked by serious setbacks for opposition forces as their push westward, stalled at the small town of Ben Jawad in midweek, was reversed at increasing speed by Gaddafi's army. Several eyewitnesses told Ahram Online of utter panic in the revolutionary ranks around Brega and Ajdabiya on Saturday as Gadaffi forces retook Ras Lanuf, sparking fears of a complete collapse of the frontline.
At the same time, several incidents in Benghazi have raised the spectre of agent-provocateurs stoking unease behind revolutionary lines. The armed ambush of an Al-Jazeera television crew on the city's outskirts on Saturday, during which a cameraman was killed, has been blamed on pro-Gaddafi elements.
Ajdabiya, which sits on the coastal crossroads connecting with the desert road to Tobruk and the Egyptian border, is where anti-Gaddafi fighters are settling in for what some have called their final stand. Heavy artillery has been brought up from Benghazi and defensive trenches are being laid. Unarmed volunteer soldiers who have arrived in recent hours have been ordered to return north and prepare for battle there.
Despite increasingly fevered demands by rebels, no UN Security Council meeting has yet been scheduled to discuss international assistance.
"The international community is dragging its feet," Saad Djebbar, a London lawyer and expert on Libyan affairs, told the Reuters news agency. "The diplomatic pace is very slow. There is an urgency to act quickly before those people are finished off by Gaddafi's forces."
A demonstration held by Libyan women in Benghazi on Saturday showed increasing desperation, and even bewilderment, at the failure of western powers to take decisive action. "Take our oil if you must," pleaded one group of young students in fluent English, almost laughing through their anguish. "Just give us freedom; it's the one thing everybody in this world wants and it's what Gaddafi and his men will crush."
The situation at the frontline is still fluid, with reports in the last few hours suggesting control of Brega is constantly shifting between revolutionaries and pro-Gaddafi forces. The momentum, however, seems to have shifted and there is the sense that the final phase of the conflict may be close at hand.