Libyan rebels close on key Gadhafi stronghold

(03/28/11) BIN JAWWAD, Libya (AP) - Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government

(03/28/11) BIN JAWWAD, Libya (AP) - Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.

The lightning rebel advance of the past few days, backed bypowerful international airstrikes, has restored to the oppositionall the territory they lost over the past week and brought them towithin 60 miles (100 miles) of this bastion of Gadhafi's power inthe center of the country.

"Sirte will not be easy to take," said Gen. Hamdi Hassi, arebel commander at the small town of Bin Jawwad, just 18 miles (30kilometers) from the front. "Now because of NATO strikes on (thegovernment's) heavy weapons, we're almost fighting with the sameweapons, only we have Grad rockets now and they don't."

Russia, however, has criticized the international strikesagainst government forces that made the rebel advance possible,saying they have overstepped their U.N. mandate to protectcivilians by taking sides in a civil war.

The U.S. launched six Tomahawk missiles Sunday and early Mondayfrom navy positions in the Mediterranean Sea, two defense officialssaid Monday on condition of anonymity because they were not yetauthorized to release the information.

That brought to 199 the number of the long-range cruise missilesfired by international forces in the week-old militaryintervention, one official said.

International air forces flew 110 missions late Sunday and earlyMonday - 75 of them strike missions. Targets included Gadhafiammunition stores, air defenses and ground forces, includingvehicles and tanks, a third official said.

Libya's rebels have recovered hundreds of miles (kilometers) offlat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gadhafi's forceswere forced to pull back by the strikes that began March 19.

In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tinystate of Qatar recognized Libya's rebels as the legitimaterepresentatives of the country - the first Arab state to do so.Hassi said there was fighting now just outside the small hamletof Nawfaliyah, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Sirte and scoutingparties had found the road ahead to be heavily mined. He added that the current rebel strategy was to combine militaryassault with an attempt to win over some of the local tribes loyalto Gadhafi over to their side.

Witnesses in Sirte reported Monday there had been air strikesthe night before and again early in the morning, but the town wasquiet, and dozens of fighters loyal to Gadhafi could be seenroaming the streets.

Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in thefirst rebel march toward the capital that was stopped March 5 byGadhafi's superior weaponry. But this time, the world's mostpowerful air forces have eased the way by pounding the government'smilitary assets for the past week.

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