RAS LANOUF, Libya — International air raids targeted Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte for the first time Sunday night as rebels made a high-speed advance toward the regime stronghold, a formidable obstacle that must be overcome for the government opponents to reach the capital Tripoli.
A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least nine loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire heard, an Associated Press reporter in the city said.
Rebels regain control of oil complexes
Earlier in the day, rebels regained two key oil complexes along the coastal highway that runs from the opposition-held eastern half of the country toward Sirte and beyond that, to the capital. Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced the steps of the rebels' first march toward the capital. But this time, the world's most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding Gadhafi's forces for the past week.
Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the coastal highway. It is considered a bastion of support for Gadhafi that will be difficult for the rebels to take and the entrances to the city have reportedly been mined. If the rebels could overcome it, momentum for a march on the capital would skyrocket.
Blasts heard in Sirte
After nightfall, foreign journalists in Sirte reported loud explosions and warplanes flying overheard. They said the city was swarming with soldiers on patrol. Libyan state television confirmed air raids on Sirte and Tripoli.
Residents in the contested city of Misrata in western Libya reported fighting Sunday between anti-government rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces firing from tanks on residential areas. Misrata is one of two cities in western Libya that have risen against the regime and suffered brutal crackdowns. Misrata is located between Tripoli and Sirte.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not offer a timetable for how long the Libya operation could last, as the Obama administration tried to bolster its case for bringing the United States into another war in the Muslim world.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after nearly 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi's forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.
Oil production brought to a trickle
Now that the rebels have regained control of two key oil ports, they are making tentative plans to exploit Libya's most valuable natural resource. But production is at a trickle, the foreign oil workers and their vital expertise have fled the country, and even talk of a marketing deal with Qatar seems murky at best.
"As they move round the coast, of course, the rebels will increasingly control the exit points of Libya's oil," British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC. "That will produce a very dynamic and a very different equilibrium inside Libya. How that will play out in terms of public opinion and the Gadhafi regime remains to be seen."
The coastal complexes at Ras Lanouf and Brega were responsible for a large chunk of Libya's 1.5 million barrels of daily exports, which have all but stopped since the uprising that began Feb. 15 and was inspired by the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
On the eastern approach of Ras Lanouf, airstrikes hit three empty tank transporters and left two buildings that appeared to be sleeping quarters pockmarked with shrapnel. Like the oil port of Brega and the city of Ajdabiya before it, Gadhafi's troops appear to have left in a hurry, abandoning ammunition and disappearing without a fight.
"There was no resistance. Gadhafi's forces just melted away," said Suleiman Ibrahim, a 31-year-old volunteer, sitting in the back of a pickup truck on the road between the two towns. "This couldn't have happened without NATO. They gave us big support."