The two jets swooped low and fast, the missiles exploding nearby and forcing those on the road to dive for cover. Artillery shells and mortar rounds landed in salvos as dark plumes of smoke rose from burning buildings in the background. For the rebels of Libya, the road to Sirte was proving to be a violent and perilous journey.

Sirte has a highly symbolic as well as strategic significance in this brutal conflict. The city is the birthplace of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, where members of his clan had vowed to fight to the bitter end. The fall of this loyalist stronghold would be seen as a body blow to the regime and provide a huge boost to the morale of the revolution, while, at the same time, opening the way to the capital, Tripoli.

After repulsing the regime’s attempt to recapture Brega, a petrochemicals centre, the emboldened opposition militia had seized the oil port of Ras Lanuf and then, within a day, had walked into Bin Jawad, a garrison town with Gaddafi’s troops seemingly retreating in disarray and defeat.

Sirte was the next stop and with it the chance to relieve Misrata and Zawiya, where protesters are being pounded by the regime. There were congratulations from the capital of “Free Libya”, Benghazi, to the militant fighters, the Shabaab.

Messages sent to the Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte warned that their nemesis was now only 160km away and offering reconciliation in return for a peaceful handover.

But yesterday, the regime struck back. Rebels claimed to have repelled attacks in the western towns of Zawiya and Misrata. And in the east, Gaddafi forces launched one of the fiercest, sustained bombardments of the campaign with tanks, rockets, mortars, rifles and anti-aircraft artillery used as ground weapons while fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships carried out sorties above.

“They are killing, killing us, we need help,” shouted 23-year-old teacher Ibrahim Waleed, one of the many volunteers who had taken up arms for the cause. “Gaddafi is cutting us to pieces, we cannot hit back.” Yunus Khwasi, an unemployed engineer, said quietly: “I have seen many men die today. Also children and also women, some of them were torn by heavy weapons.”

Behind them, in Bin Jawad, 300 Shabaab fighters were cornered. Rebel fighters desperately urged their commanders to mount another counter-attack to save their comrades.

Yesterday, the Shabaab returned to Bin Jawad and into a fierce ambush. Saddam Hussein, 18, recalled: “We did not know what was happening, and then firing started all around us, they were using missiles and machine-guns. We could not turn around, the way ahead was blocked, it was very frightening.”

Some of the Shabaab inside Bin Jawad managed to get away. The fate of the others remained unknown. The rebel commanders insisted Bin Jawad would be retaken and the march to Sirte continue. “It’s not difficult to take Sirte,” said Colonel Bashir Abdul Gadir.

“I think 70 per cent of regular people are with us there. We’re going to wait till they call us to let us know when they are ready, and that will be very soon.”

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