A Libyan rebel, draped in the flag of the Kingdom of Libya, prays at the entrance to Ajdabiya after the city was recaptured from Gaddafi forces. Photograph: Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan rebels backed by allied air strikes have recaptured the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya, pushing out Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
Anti-government fighters danced on tanks, waved flags and fired in the air next to buildings riddled with bulletholes after an all-night battle that suggested the tide was turning against Gaddafi’s forces in the east.
A Reuters correspondent saw half a dozen wrecked tanks near the eastern entrance to the town and the ground strewn with empty shell casings. There were also signs of heavy fighting at the western gate, the last part of the town taken from government troops.
“Everything was destroyed last night by our forces,” said rebel fighter Sarhag Agouri. Witnesses and fighters said the whole town was in rebel hands by late morning.
Capturing Ajdabiya is a big morale boost for the rebels after two weeks spent on the back foot.
Gaddafi’s better-armed forces halted an early rebel advance near the major oil export terminal of Ras Lanuf and pushed them back to their stronghold of Benghazi until western powers struck Gaddafi’s positions from the sea and air.
Air strikes on Ajdabiya on Friday afternoon seem to have been decisive. The African Union (AU) said it was planning to facilitate talks to help end the war, but Nato said its operation could last three months, and France said the conflict would not end soon.
In Washington, a US military spokeswoman said the coalition fired 16 Tomahawk cruise missiles and flew 153 air sorties in the past 24 hours, attacking Gaddafi’s artillery, mechanised forces and command and control infrastructure.
Western governments hope the raids, launched a week ago with the aim of protecting civilians, will shift the balance of power in favour of the Arab world’s most violent popular revolt.
In Tripoli, explosions were heard early on Saturday, signalling possible new strikes by warplanes or missiles.
Libyan state television was broadcasting occasional news reports of western air strikes. Mostly it showed footage – some of it grainy images years old – of cheering crowds waving green flags and carrying portraits of Gaddafi.
Neither he nor his sons have been shown on state television since the Libyan leader made a speech from his Tripoli compound on Wednesday.
State TV said the “brother leader” had promoted all members of his armed forces and police “for their heroic and courageous fight against the crusader, colonialist assault”.
The US said Gaddafi’s ability to command and sustain his forces was diminishing.
Officials and rebels said aid organisations were able to deliver some supplies to the western city of Misrata but were concerned because of government snipers in the city centre.
Gaddafi’s forces shelled an area on the outskirts of the city, killing six people including three children, a rebel said.
Misrata has experienced some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and government forces since an uprising began on 16 February.
At AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, the commission chairman, Jean Ping, said the organisation was planning to facilitate peace talks in a process that should end with democratic elections.
It was the first statement by the AU, which had opposed any form of foreign intervention in the Libya crisis, since the UN security council imposed a no-fly zone last week and air strikes began on Libyan military targets.
But in Brussels, a Nato official said planning for its operation assumed a mission lasting 90 days, although this could be extended or shortened as required. France said the mission could go on for weeks.