AJDABIYA, Libya – Libyan rebels regained control of the eastern gateway city of Ajdabiya on Saturday after international airstrikes crippled Moammar Gadhafi's forces, in the first major turnaround for an uprising that a week ago appeared on the verge of defeat.
The government acknowledged the airstrikes had forced its troops to retreat and accused international forces of choosing sides in the fight.
"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in Tripoli. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."
In Ajdabiya, drivers honked in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired guns into the air and danced on burned-out tanks that littered the road. Inside a building that had served as makeshift barracks for pro-Gadhafi forces, hastily discarded uniforms were piled on the floor.
"Without the planes we couldn't have done this. Gadhafi's weapons are at a different level than ours," said Ahmed Faraj, 38, a rebel fighter from Ajdabiya. "With the help of the planes we are going to push onward to Tripoli, God willing."
Ajdabiya's sudden fall to Gadhafi's troops spurred the swift U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader's military.
The turnaround is a boost for President Barack Obama, who has faced complaints from lawmakers from both parties that he has not sought their input about the U.S. role in the war or explained with enough clarity about the U.S. goals and exit strategy. Obama was expected to give a speech to the nation Monday.
"The United States should not and cannot intervene every time there's a crisis somewhere in the world," Obama said in a radio and Internet address Saturday. But with Gadhafi threatening "a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region ... it's in our national interest to act. And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times."
Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with an RPG in his hands, said the city's eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations.
"All of Ajdabiya is free," he said.
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 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Gadhafi's forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.
Earlier Friday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition's eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misrata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi's siege.
A doctor in Misrata said airstrikes there on Saturday put an end to two days of shelling and sniper fire from Gadhafi's forces. The city was quiet Saturday afternoon, said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety if the city should fall. For now, he said, rebels control the city center, just as they have throughout in Ajdabiya.
On Saturday, rebels in Ajdabiya hauled away a captured rocket launcher and a dozen boxes of anti-aircraft ammunition, adding to their limited firepower. Later in the day, other rebels drove around and around a traffic circle, jubilantly shooting an assortment of weapons in the air — anti-aircraft weapons, AK-47s, RPGs.
Outside the city, Muftah el-Zwei was driving away, his back seat loaded with plastic bags filled with blankets and clothes that he picked up after going to his home in Ajdabiya for the first time in days.
"We went and checked it out, drove around the neighborhood and it looked OK. Hopefully we'll come back to stay tomorrow," he said.
On Friday, the U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya," but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. "We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."
Instead, the focus was on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces has been the stated mission of the international action since the beginning, although some countries have offered variations on that theme at times.
A resident of Zwara, a former rebel holding in the west, said the regime has the town firmly in its grip again. He said pro-Gadhafi forces are dragging away people there and in the town of Zawiya who participated in protests that began Feb. 15 and were inspired by the uprisings that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
"They have lists of demonstrators and videos and so on and they are seeking them out. We are all staying home and waiting for this to be over," said the resident, who did not want to be named because he feared for his safety if discovered. He said a friend who helped coordinate checkpoints when the opposition held the city was taken away Friday.
"They came with four or five cars with four people in each one, all of them armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs. They surrounded the house and took him out," he said, adding that the whole thing was seen by a common friend.
He said neighbors now fear each other.
"During the demonstrations, many people contributed to the community, doing anything they could. This shows that the regime has collaborators to give them names. It's a Big Brother type of show, so they can come in and take whomever they want."