Allied Air Strikes Help Rebels Move On Gadhafi Forces

The United States and its allies launched a third night of air strikes on Libyan air defenses and government forces last night. With the pressure off the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, rebels are moving westward and have mounted an offensive against Gadhafi's forces in Ajdabiya. For the latest on the battle, guest host Farai Chideya speaks with Al Jazeera reporter James Bays at the scene of the latest clashes.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The United States and its allies enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya launched a third night of air strikes on Moammar Gadhafi's military last night. An American F-15 fighter jet crashed during the operation, but the Pentagon says both crew members have been recovered. A spokesman says the crash was likely caused by mechanical failure, not hostile fire.

Before the U.S.-led attacks, the rebels were defending their base in Benghazi, expecting a battle with pro-government forces. But now with the pressure off of Benghazi, thanks to the U.S. and European air attacks, there are reports that rebel forces have gone on a westward offensive.

We wanted to know more about the perspective on the ground, so we called upon James Bays. He's a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He's currently reporting outside the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on the road to the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya. He joins us by phone.

James, I understand you're reporting at the seat of the opposition's provisional government, their base, their stronghold to the east. And so you've had some quite interesting experience covering this story. What's been going on with you?

Mr. JAMES BAYS (Correspondent, Al Jazeera English): Well, I've made my way down from Benghazi in the last few hours to what is - effectively, now - the frontline on the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, about, I would say, nine kilometers from Ajdabiya, which is where the opposition fighters stop. And the fighting, really, has been at this place for more than 24 hours now. They seem not to be making a great deal of progress, the opposition fighters. That's because they have much superior numbers, I think, than Gadhafi's forces.

They certainly have the determination. But they just don't have the firepower, these people. There are some trained troops here. But the majority are young volunteers with no military training whatsoever, and they're coming down here with very limited weaponry. They have small arms. They have rocket-propelled grenades. Some have rocket launchers. But just a few kilometers beyond where I am now, Gadhafi's forces have tanks, and they have ground(ph) missiles. And I was just a few kilometers further up the road from where I am now, and we came under attack.

In fact, we saw one of the opposition vehicles, which was attacked. One man died in front of us in that vehicle. We had to scramble into a ditch during that attack, and have now made our way a couple of kilometers back to a safer location. But it's pretty clear that the opposition making very little ground in the last 24 hours since those air strikes by the Western powers on the tanks on the roads outside Benghazi.

CHIDEYA: Well, James, U.S. president Barack Obama yesterday said the U.S. will soon hand over leadership to its coalition partners to maintain a no-fly zone.

President BARACK OBAMA: I also have stated that it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go. And we've got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy.

CHIDEYA: So, when you are in and around Benghazi, what is the reaction of the rebels to not only what's happening on the ground, but the level of support that they feel from the U.S. and its allies?

Mr. BAYS: Well, the last few days, there have been a range of reactions because, remember, it was only a few days ago that the city itself was attacked by Gadhafi's forces and very heavy fighting in the southern part of the city. I think many people in Benghazi thought they were about to fall at that moment. They managed somehow, using their own firepower, very limited firepower, to repel those Gadhafi forces, to push Gadhafi's soldiers and armor back out on the desert road, which is when they were destroyed by Western airpower -particularly, we think, by the French, who were involved in those first strikes.

At that moment, the people of Benghazi and the opposition felt that they had an air force with the most sophisticated and devastating weaponry. But the truth is, that since that time and since that moment - when I think the Western powers felt the city of Benghazi was under threat and under the U.N. mandate, they could act to protect civilians - these people have not had the support they want.

They would like much more support. They would like the Western powers to continue fighting from the air on their side. But, of course, that is not within the mandate of the U.N. resolution.

CHIDEYA: So, with rebel forces on the offensive with uncertain outcome, how far have they gotten? And do you know what they're planning next and what their contingency plans are?

Mr. BAYS: I think that's the problem. There's not a lot of planning. They're not so very well coordinated, or a well-ordered force. There are some with military training who have defected from Gadhafi's army. But the vast majority are youngsters, with no military training. I was with one of the former members of Gadhafi's special forces who's defected to the opposition side. And we watched some of the young fighters drive past him. And he said: They're very brave, very brave, indeed. But they're also suicidal.

CHIDEYA: Well, please stay safe. James Bays, thank you so much.

Mr. BAYS: Thanks. Bye-bye.

CHIDEYA: James Bays is a Middle East-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He's been reporting on the conflict in Libya from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and he joined us while traveling between Benghazi and Ajdabiya.

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