FORCES loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were retreating last night after rebels recaptured the key eastern towns of Ajdabiya and Brega.

Their first significant victory since Western-led air strikes began a week ago came as US President Barack Obama said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a “bloodbath” threatened by Gaddafi.

The rebels thanked France for its role in the military blitz but said “outside forces” could now leave the country.  Ajdabiya was “100 per cent in the hands of our forces,” a rebel spokesman, Shamsiddin Abdulmollah, said in the stronghold of Benghazi.

“Who is on the back foot are Gaddafi’s forces because they no longer have air power and heavy weaponry available” after a week of bombing by coalition warplanes, he said.  Another spokesman, Ahmed Khalifa, said the rebels had captured at least 13 Gaddafi fighters who were being treated as prisoners of war.

A rebel fighter told AFP insurgents had retaken Brega also, and a journalist travelling with them confirmed seeing rebels in control of the centre of the oil town, and said government forces had completely withdrawn.  “We are in the centre of Brega,” 80km west of Ajdabiya, Abdelsalam al-Maadani told AFP by telephone. “Gaddafi’s forces are on the retreat.”

The rebels, backed by the Western barrage, earlier poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents reported.

The bodies of at least two pro-Gaddafi fighters were surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing into the air and shouting “God is greater.”  Outside Ajdabiya, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic said.

Osama al-Qasy from Benghazi’s Hawari hospital said the bodies were found 10km west of Ajdabiya. Other charred corpses remained in the desert.  Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes. Residents accused them of brutalising the population.

Ibrahim Saleh, 34, said: “The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop. I couldn’t move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on.  “The coalition air strikes were yesterday and the day before. They attacked from the skies and the revolutionaries came in afterwards and freed the city.”

Rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani told a Benghazi news conference that Gaddafi’s forces at Ajdabiya were asked several times to surrender, and were attacked when they refused to do so.

Ajdabiya, straddling the key road to Benghazi, is the first town to fall back into rebel hands since a coalition of Western forces launched UN-backed air strikes on March 19 to stop Gaddafi’s forces attacking civilians.

But in Libya’s west, where the capital Tripoli and most of Gaddafi’s support is located, the port city of Misratah was in dire need of help from coalition jets and humanitarian groups because of attacks by Gaddafi forces, the rebels said.

Snipers loyal to Gaddafi flooded Misratah yesterday and artillery pounded the city causing new civilian deaths, a rebel spokesman said.  “The international community must urgently intervene to protect the population,” pleaded the spokesman who asked that his name be withheld.  “People have been killed and wounded,” he said.

Obama said a week into the operation that when innocent people were brutalised by a leader like Gaddafi threatening a “bloodbath,” and when nations were prepared to respond together, “it’s in our national interest to act.”

“And it’s our responsibility. This is one of those times,” he said.  “Our military mission in Libya is clear and focused,” he added, noting the no-fly zone was mandated by the UN Security Council and that an international coalition was protecting Libyans to prevent “further atrocities.”

“We’re succeeding in our mission. We’ve taken out Libya’s air defences. gaddafi’s forces are no longer advancing across Libya.”  Obama repeated his warnings that Gaddafi should go.

“Muammar Gaddafi has lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to rule, and the aspirations of the Libyan people must be realised,” he said.  The Libyan opposition’s interim national council leader Mahmoud Jibril said his people no longer needed outside help, in a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and published by the daily Le Figaro.

“In the middle of the night, your planes destroyed tanks that were set to crush Benghazi. … The Libyan people see you as liberators. Its recognition will be eternal,” he wrote.  However, Jibril added: “We do not want outside forces. We won’t need them. We will win the first battle thanks to you. We will win the next battle through our own means.”

Russia’s chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow: “Air (strikes) as I see it have not given them results.  “If their aim was to topple the regime of Gaddafi, then probably they will not manage without a ground phase,” he was quoted as saying. “I would not rule it out.”

He reaffirmed Russia’s position that it would not join the international operation.

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