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Gadhafi Forces Drive Rebels From Key Oil Town

Wounded rebel fighters are treated in a hospital in Ajdabiyah after being brought in from the road to Ras Lanuf, in Libya, March 30, 2011

Opposition leaders in Libya said Wednesday that they have withdrawn their forces from the coastal town of Ras Lanuf east of Tripoli under a major offensive by troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. News reports say the town of Brega further east on the road to Benghazi appears also to have fallen, while skirmishes reportedly continue in the third largest city, Misrata.

The Deputy Chairman of the opposition National Transition Council, Abdelhafid Ghoga, told reporters in Benghazi that its forces have been obliged to retreat in the face of an onslaught by heavily armed troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

He said a very large military convoy was on its way east with heavy equipment and the opposition’s volunteer forces were too lightly armed to defend selves against such military might.

The deputy chairman also welcomed the creation in London this week of a contact group on Libya of Western and Arab governments and the United Nations. He said the special U.N. representative to Libya was expected in Benghazi in the near future.

Opposition officials would not comment directly on reports that the international coalition was considering sending arms to the opposition other than to say they would welcome any additional assistance.

Rebels at the front said they would re-group in the town of Ajdabiyah, 140 kilometers west of Benghzai.

Before the retreat, opposition forces, composed largely of young volunteers with little or no military training, had advanced close to the central coastal city of Sirte - Moammar Gadhafi's birthplace.

Their offensive came after they beat back, with the aid of coalition air strikes, a pro-Gadhafi offensive that reached the outskirts of Benghazi 10 days ago.

Military Spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani called the retreat a "tactical withdrawal." "We thought it better to withdraw until we can determine a better tactical strategy to face this force," he said.

Reporters near the frontlines say coalition air strikes against government tanks and heavy artillery appears to have diminished in recent days.

Two opposition officials praised the the Western-led operations operations, saying they were fulfilling the mandate of the United Nations Security Council. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is expected to assume command of coalition operations this week.