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The World

March 28, 2011

Libyan rebels close on key Gadhafi stronghold

RAS LANOUF, Libya — Libya's rebel forces closed in Monday on Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, the gateway to the western half of the country after it was targeted for the first time by international air strikes.

Witnesses in Sirte said that bombing was heard Sunday night and then again 6:30 a.m. local time, but there was no fighting in the streets or signs of rebel forces. The night before dozens of fighters loyal to Gadhafi could be seen roaming the streets.

The Libyan state news agency also reported that there had been air strikes against the southern town of Sabha, which remains strongly loyal to Gadhafi and is a major transit point for ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger fighting for the government.

JANA said the strikes destroyed a number of houses, though past strikes on Sabha, 385 miles (620 kilometers) south of Tripoli, targeted the airport and the flow of foreign fighters reinforcing the regime.

Libya's rebels have recovered hundreds of miles (kilometers) of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gadhafi's forces were forced to pull back by international air strikes.

The rebels took back two key oil complexes along the coastal highway and promised to quickly restart Libya's stalled oil exports, prompting a slight drop in the soaring price of crude oil to around $105 a barrel.

Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital. But this time, the world's most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding Gadhafi's military assets for the past week.

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a bastion of support for Gadhafi and is expected to be difficult for rebels to take.

West of Sirte is the embattled city of Misrata, the sole place in rebel hands in the country's west. Residents reported fighting between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.

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