Brega, Libya - In the distance and high above, a Libyan air force jet circled over the town of Brega, a key oil port in eastern Libya around 330km from Sirte, one of Muammar Gaddafi's last remaining strongholds.
As scores of rebel fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers watched from their staging point on the main road into town, the jet dipped and dropped its ordinance. A plume of smoke rose from Brega, and the sound of the explosion washed over the assembled crowd.
Somewhere near the town, anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The jet ascended and disappeared into the glare of the sun, though its hum could still be heard in the sky.
A minute later, it reappeared and descended rapidly, coming straight for the road. It swooped low and sped overhead. A moment after it passed, an explosion erupted from the desert 80 metres away, shooting black smoke and sand into the air and scattering the rebels in different directions down the road.
It was a rare event: a Libyan military airstrike witnessed directly by foreign journalists.
The bombing left no casualties, but a co-ordinated raid on Brega on Wednesday that witnesses said involved at least six jeeps and heavily armed troops left at least 10 dead - one of them a 12-year-old boy - and injured at least 21 more.
The attack and the large mobilisation to counter it illustrated how the conflict between Gaddafi loyalists and opponents has in three weeks escalated from street protests to armed rebellion.
Early on Wednesday morning, reports of an attack on Brega reached Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the heart of the uprising. Gaddafi forces had retaken the town, airport, and refinery and petrochemical plant, witnesses said.
The claim seemed plausible: during a visit to Brega and nearby Ajdabiya on Monday, Al Jazeera found the oil-rich front lines of the rebellion lightly defended by irregular fighters, ill-equipped and undisciplined, more prone to firing their weapons in the air than setting up defences.
The number of Gaddafi troops was unclear, but they reportedly arrived before dawn and easily pushed the rebel troops back with fire from assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and air support.
At the main checkpoint outside Ajdabiya, close to Brega and around 160km south of Benghazi, hundreds of opposition fighters heeded the call to come to the town’s defence. Civilian cars filled the desert around the checkpoint. Their occupants milled around the main road, cheering as armed rebels drove by in vans and pickup trucks, heading for the front.
|The anti-government forces largely had little
military training and no clear leadership
Some cleaned weapons and loaded ammunition into belts, while others manned the defences.
Fighters had positioned several 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns behind dirt embankments on either side of the road. On one side, a multi-barreled rocket launcher sat loaded and primed to fire.
Farther ahead of the checkpoint, two 105mm M40 recoilless rifles - essentially tank barrels mounted on tripods - pointed toward Brega.
A tank commandeered by the opposition arrived, then left. Inside a storeroom, around 10 surface-to-air missile launchers leaned against a wall.
The stream of reinforcements continued toward Brega throughout the morning. Men wore plain clothes, tan and green camouflage and a wide assortment of gear that opposition forces said has been donated from the army. Body armour was nowhere to be seen. One man in a purple sweatshirt wore an outdated helmet too large for his head and carried a bazooka with no ammunition.
It remained unclear whether the rebel fighters, the majority of them civilians with little or no training, would be capable of repelling a serious assault by Gaddafi loyalists. Defected army officers at the checkpoint and down the road at the staging point outside Brega attempted to give tactical direction and training on the spot, but the opposition’s military efforts on Wednesday seemed to be in nobody's control.
Civilians approached former colonels, still dressed in camouflage uniforms, to offer excited reports from the field and sketch out manoeuvres in the sand.
Lack of training
The lack of training had serious ramifications. Rebels returning to the checkpoint from the road toward Brega complained about the number of friendly practice rounds fired in their direction.
At one point, a man assisting with one of the recoilless rifles suffered severe injuries to his legs and back when someone fired the weapon, possibly exploding another unused round stacked nearby. Dozens of men rushed to the scene, and the injured man was carried to a car and driven away, his legs covered in blood.
At the opposition staging point outside Brega, before the air strike forced the rebels to flee, Colonel Bashir Abdul-Qader, dressed in a tan camouflage uniform, attempted to co-ordinate a counterattack on the town.
He spoke with colleagues on a mobile phone and exchanged ideas with members of the opposition waiting on the road, but neither he nor they seemed prepared, and it was unclear who among the fighters in civilian clothes had authority to lead.
Abdul-Qader said that the rebels planned to surround Brega and overwhelm it at night. The ultimate goal, he said, was a march on Sirte. But events outpaced the colonel's lofty plans. As the Libyan jet circled above, opposition fighters were already pushing Gaddafi supporters out of town.
Some of the fighters on the road claimed that around 200 or 300 Gaddafi troops had become trapped in Brega University. But each story differed from the next. Some said the pro-Gaddafi forces had attacked with 50 vehicles; others said a Libyan air force pilot had ejected rather than bomb rebel positions around Ajdabiya.
A car approached from Brega and a man jumped out to excitedly claim that the university had fallen. After him, another car heading back from town bore a wounded man.
Kilometres ahead, the gunfire and explosions continued. According to witnesses, pro-Gaddafi fighters had fired indiscriminately during the morning rampage inside the Brega University compound, which also houses family residences.
By early afternoon, no fighting could be seen in Brega itself, though a small crater, apparently from the airstrike, still smouldered at the entrance to the university. Trucks and jeeps loaded with opposition fighters pushed into the scrubland south of the road, driving away the last remaining Gaddafi troops.
As celebrating fighters shot automatic AK-47 fire into the air, a convoy of three large transport trucks inched through the crowd, carrying dozens of Egyptian workers who had been trapped in Sirte and were now making their way east toward the border.
They waved and cheered as the fighters tossed them water bottles.
On the seaside road from the university to Brega Hospital, men perused the sand dunes where fighting had raged earlier in the day, picking up spent shell casings and packages for 81mm mortars, though it was unclear whether they had been fired by Gaddafi forces or rebels.
Our online producer took this footage shortly after a fighter jet dropped munitions nearby
Outside Brega Hospital, a large crowd had gathered. Six bodies filled a small, one-room morgue. The man keeping watch inside said the two lying on the floor were pro-Gaddafi fighters.
One appeared to be middle-aged, the other perhaps in his early 20s; neither seemed to be wearing a standard army uniform. Three other dead civilians were being kept at a nearby clinic, he said.
One of the civilian dead, a man with a white-and-black checkered kaffiyeh, bore a gaping gunshot wound to his neck - likely the result of a high-calibre machine gun round.
Sand covered his face, and blood pooled around his collar.
Inside, staff treated the injured.
One man receiving stitches had been hit by gunfire; the bullet had entered the front of his left thigh and exited the buttock on the same side.
Adult men were not the only casualties. Nurses wheeled in two small boys on gurneys. They were brothers, a doctor said. Seven-year-old Faraj Omran had been hit in the nose by a piece of shrapnel, possibly a bullet fragment. He laid flat on a gurney, shaking and staring fearfully at the crowd around him.
His 14-year-old brother Hussein lay nearby, a bandage over his forehead where he too had been hit. Another brother, 12-year-old Hassan, had been shot to death, the doctor said.
Some rebel witnesses claimed that Gaddafi's forces had dragged families out of their cars on the main road, using them as human shields once they were pinned down inside the university grounds.
Throughout the day, vans and taxis could be seen taking families down the road away from Brega towards Benghazi, the occupants waving the victory sign to onlookers.
In the hospital, doctors showed the identification card of Hassan Ahmed Mukhtar, one of the dead men alleged to be a Gaddafi loyalist.
They were eager to point out the line that said he was an immigrant from Niger. But the card was issued by the Libyan government, and it was impossible to know whether the man was one of the supposed "mercenaries" recruited by Gaddafi to put down the uprising.
The early-morning assault on Brega may have been an attempt to probe the revolution's front lines and measure the rebels' ability to respond. It clearly indicated Gaddafi's ability to strike hundreds of kilometres from his power bases. Yet despite the show of air power, rebels repelled it easily.
With thousands of young men reportedly signing up to join the new army of liberated eastern Libya, and defected army officers working to bring organisation to the front lines, Gaddafi's ability to regain a foothold in the strategic lands east of Sirte appears to be shrinking.
Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill
Source: Al Jazeera