BIN JAWWAD, Libya — After advancing swiftly westward over the weekend, rebel fighters in Libya were halted abruptly today by stiff resistance from government fighters about 50 miles east of the key government garrison town of Sirte.

Fighters returning from the newly established front lines said forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were attacking rebels with rockets several miles east of Gate 80, a well-defended military position about 50 miles east of Sirte.

Though stripped of their air cover and much of their armor by allied airstrikes over the last nine days, Gadhafi’s men were putting up a strong fight, rebels said. They said government forces had planted land mines on the approaches to Sirte, Gadhafi’s birthplace.

The Gate 80 location, about five miles from a small community known as Harawa, is part of a defensive line regularly manned by Gadhafi militiamen posted to defend Sirte from attack from the rebel-held east. The defenses halted a rebel advance, which had covered more than 150 miles in less than 24 hours over the weekend.

“It’s a big fight from both sides,” said Rabia Abdullah, driving a commandeered oil-company bus that had just delivered fighters and ammunition to the front. “I just passed two cars destroyed by rockets.”

An inaccurate news report overnight saying that Sirte had fallen to the rebels sent overconfident fighters racing toward the town and triggered a wild night of celebratory shooting in the eastern city of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.

Hundreds of rebel volunteers, both armed and unarmed, sped west in private cars from Benghazi, about 275 miles away by highway, to join the fight. They were turned back by fighters near the front.

An advance unit of rebel fighters, which included soldiers who defected from the army, ordered everyone without a heavy weapon to pull back, fighters said.

“I wanted to be part of the taking of Sirte, but they didn’t let me pass,” said Khaled Saity, 43, who brought his father and two friends from Benghazi in a pickup truck.

The four men, armed with assault rifles, were told that only gun trucks with heavy machine guns or anti-aircraft weapons were needed at the front. They were instructed to go back to Bin Jawwad and guard against a government counterattack by patrolling the desert, they said.

Disappointed, Saity turned his pickup around and headed back to Benghazi.

Rebels massed late todaty in Bin Jawwad, a trash-strewn desert outpost they first seized on March 5 but fled in panic the next day under a surprise government counterattack. The rebels had been celebrating their victory instead of setting up defensive positions — a tactical mistake they repeated todaty as they fired guns into the air and argued over strategy.

Other rebels set up a larger rear base in Ras Lanouf, the strategic oil city and port they captured Sunday, more than two weeks after government forces drove them from the city with airstrikes, tank fire and rocket barrages.

Sirte, a coastal city of 150,000, is a military hub defended by regime loyalists. Warplanes commanded by NATO, which have been attacking government forces and imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, pounded the city Sunday night, prompting some residents to flee toward Tripoli, 225 miles to the northwest.

It remains to be seen whether the allied warplanes, whose airstrikes cleared the way for the rebel advance, will attack pro-Gadhafi fighters and weapons systems defending the city. The U.N. Security Council resolution passed March 17 authorizes attacks only to defend civilians threatened by government forces.

Sirte is the last major pro-Gadhafi bastion between rebel forces and Tripoli. Well-armed troops and militiamen are expected to mount a vigorous defense of the city to prevent rebels from advancing on Misrata, under siege by government forces trying to put down an uprising there, and the capital itself.


Tribesmen in Bin Jawwad said Gadhafi’s forces sped through the town late Saturday, fleeing coalition airstrikes that drove them from the crossroads city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya. Many drove civilian cars with their headlights off, they said, though some military trucks mounted with rocket launchers also were seen.

The tribesman said they saw no government tanks or armored troop carriers in the panicked government convoy speeding toward Sirte. The coastal highway around Ajdabiya is littered with the blackened hulks of tanks, rocket batteries and armored troop carriers destroyed by the airstrikes.

At least four rebel flatbed trucks hauling intact T-72 tanks abandoned by Gadhafi’s forces were seen headed east toward Benghazi. Other rebel trucks loaded with captured ammunition rolled west toward the front.

But even without armor and warplanes, Gadhafi’s forces around Sirte still have truck-mounted BM-21 Grad rocket systems and superior military organization and firepower compared with the inexperienced and lightly armed rebels.

Rebel fighters in Bin Jawwad claimed that opposition forces now had Grad rocket systems abandoned by government forces, and several have been seen near the front lines.