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Residents flee Libya's urban warfare zones

Libyan rebels rest on the back of a pick-up truck at the last check point before the key city of Ajdabiya on March 23, 2011 as government forces have encircled the town.

ARIS MESSINIS/Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Survivors who escaped Ajdabiya, who avoided tanks and snipers, who scurried through back streets and trudged bleak highways, all have different stories of the havoc wreaked by Libyan forces on the city now on the front lines of the civil war.

The point of the horrific tales is always the same: They illustrate the shortcomings of air power as the war shifts from the sandy open ground of the North African desert into the alleyways of the sprawling coastal cities. "When the planes attacked, the government tanks, they moved into the houses so the planes couldn't hit them," said Sami al-Gtani, 21, who fled the city on Wednesday. "Give us weapons and we will chase them ourselves."

Rebels say they appreciate the coalition air strikes that have incinerated the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in recent days. The foreign intervention heralded a nasty phase in the conflict, however, as Col. Gadhafi's troops seek shelter inside major cities such as Misurata and Ajdabiya.

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The international coalition seems reluctant to strike urban targets, fearing the backlash that would follow civilian casualties, which leaves the outgunned rebels to confront Col. Gadhafi's troops in house-to-house urban warfare. Residents claim that Col. Gadhafi's forces razed entire neighbourhoods of Ajdabiya, a city with a long history of rebellion against his regime.

Some of the destruction appears tactical, as troops carve out niches to shelter their heavy weapons. Other attacks seem punitive: Survivors say the forces cut the electrical supply, attacked mosques during a busy time for prayers and blew up gasoline tanks to deprive the city of fuel.

Shortages at gas stations have become especially desperate as the city runs out of other basic supplies, including food, and many residents try to escape.

Ongoing battles nearby have left only one practical route away from the city, across hundreds of kilometres of barren desert to the distant port of Tobruk. Many people were caught without enough fuel in their vehicles for such a long journey, however, and escapees have described thousands of displaced residents sleeping in tents and other shelters about 30 kilometres east of the Ajdabiya.

"In the western suburbs, many people are missing and their homes are completely destroyed," said Mansour al-Gtani, whose own house was smashed by two Gadhafi missiles on March 17. "Nobody knows how many died."

Local radio in Tobruk broadcast an appeal to help those escaping, and locals say about 300 people have opened their homes. Other volunteers are ferrying people out of the desert, but it's a slow process and the nights remain bitterly cold for those sleeping without proper shelter.

Some of the displaced have run away from pro-Gadhafi forces several times in recent weeks, retreating from the advancing troops as they captured coastal towns such as Ras Lanuf and Brega. The number of people fleeing climbed sharply last week, as fighting reached Ajdabiya's one million residents.

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Goma al-Gtani, 27, sneaked out of the city with his cousin Sami on Wednesday morning, taking alleys and back roads to avoid government troops. Snipers have taken positions on many prominent rooftops in the city, he said, including the main hospital. "They can shoot you any time, any where," he said.

He and his cousin had saved a little fuel, enough to get away from the city itself, and then wandered the highway on foot until they found a rescuer from Tobruk. Others have suffered worse, they said. The entire staff of a Bangladeshi cleaning company remained stranded on the empty road. "They ran out of fuel and food," Sami al-Gtani said.

None of the survivors' stories can be independently confirmed, and some of the behaviour they ascribe to government forces doesn't seem entirely logical. They said that Col. Gadhafi's troops kidnapped people from the streets and forcibly painted their faces green, a colour associated with the Libyan regime. They also described Col. Gadhafi's men grabbing dead bodies from the hospital morgue, and taking them away. "Why? I don't know," the younger Mr. al-Gtani said.

The information about seized bodies echoes descriptions from rebels in other cities, who have suggested Col. Gadhafi wants to create the appears of civilian casualties inflicted by Western air power. Many bodies in Ajdabiya's morgue showed signs of blast injuries, inflicted by the regime's own missiles, artillery and air strikes in weeks gone by, but the men who escaped from Ajdabiya took pains to emphasize that recent Western air strikes have not inflicted civilian casualties.

Perhaps the most hopeful indicator they noticed on the city's streets in recent days is a number of discarded uniforms shed by Col. Gadhafi's men. Even that development has a dark side, however, because some pro-regime forces have continued fighting in plain clothes. "It's impossible to know who to trust," Sami al-Gtani said.

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