Libyan rebels stream west
Ras Lanuf - A steady stream of rebels in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns drove towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Monday, seeking to extend their advance west.
A spokesperson in Benghazi said rebels based in east Libya had captured Sirte on Monday, but a Reuters correspondent in the city said there was no sign that rebel forces were in control.
"We heard from Benghazi that the rebels are in Sirte, but it is not for sure because Gaddafi's soldiers are firing rockets from Sirte, so we are not certain," 23-year-old Mohamed, a lawyer turned rebel fighter, said in the town of Ras Lanuf.
Emboldened by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi's forces, rebels in the oil-producing North African country have pushed west along the Mediterranean coast to retake a series of towns in short order.
Reversing earlier losses in a back-and-forth five-week insurgency, they have regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.
Rebel fighters lined up for petrol at a fuel station in Ras Lanuf, where dozens of pick-ups were heading west along the coast.
Contradicting the rebel claim to have a captured Sirte, an important military base about 450 km west of the capital Tripoli, Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy reported from the city that the situation was normal. He had seen some police and military, but no signs of any fighting.
Convoy of military vehicles
As Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte has great symbolic importance. If it fell, the rebels would gain a great psychological boost and the road towards Tripoli would lie open.
Georgy heard four blasts on Sunday night but it was unclear if they were in Sirte or its outskirts.
He also saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles, including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, leaving Sirte and moving westwards towards Tripoli, 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 pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on them.
The advance by the poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels suggested that Western air strikes 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 Gaddafi appears to be retrenching in the west. His forces fought rebels on Sunday in the centre of Misrata, Libya's third city.
A rebel spokesperson in another western town, Zintan, said forces loyal to Gaddafi bombarded the town with rockets early on Monday, Al Jazeera television reported.