MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now to the rebel forces, who are still losing ground. The front lines in Libya continue to shift. In the eastern part of the country today, troops loyal to the dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, pushed rebel fighters into a headlong retreat along the Mediterranean coastline.

NPR's Eric Westervelt was with them, and as he reports, the rebels have now been pushed back to where they were 12 days ago when the Western airstrikes began.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Tense, worried and tired rebel fighters massed at the western gate of the small oil town of Brega today, while the distant rumble of approaching mortar and artillery fire grew closer. Ali Jamal bin Hassouna, who had just retreated from the nearby town of Ras Lanuf, waved his arms and anxiously told a group of fellow fighters that what amounts to their leadership had deceived them.

Mr. ALI JAMAL BIN HASSOUNA: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: The rebel commanders are betraying us, he shouts. They told us the ammunition we had was enough so we moved forward. But it wasn't enough. They made us go into the fighting unprepared. They're playing a dirty game, he says. A fellow fighter asked, are you sure about this? Are you sure? To which bin Hassouna shouts, yes, yes.

Mr. BIN HASSOUNA: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: I swear it's true. You haven't seen what I've seen, Hassouna says. Our people are getting slaughtered before our eyes up there. Soon, several ambulances with wounded fighters tear down the road toward the nearby roadside clinic.

(Soundbite of ambulance)

WESTERVELT: The insurgents here fighting to end Moammar Gadhafi's 42 years of iron-fisted rule were again outgunned and outmaneuvered today. Rebel fighters have stuck largely to the main highway along the coast. Gadhafi troops, some opposition fighters say, are now using new tactics. They're deploying small, mobile teams armed with mortars and small rockets all backed by artillery.

They're allegedly using nonmilitary vehicles, wearing civilian clothes and moving in from the desert flanks against the largely untrained and disorganized rebel gunmen.

Twenty-six-year-old Mohammed Adrees fled Ras Lanuf for Brega early today.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. MOHAMMED ADREES: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: We have to be ready for any moves from Gadhafi's troops, as they may turn around and come in from the desert at any time, he says. He adds that he hopes French and allied fighter jets conduct more airstrikes here soon. But allied airstrikes today did not seem to help the rebels near Brega and Ras Lanuf.

This afternoon, mortar and artillery fire from Gadhafi loyalists edged closer and rebel fighters sounded the retreat.

(Soundbite of shouting)

WESTERVELT: Once again today, here in Brega, they're pulling back. Commanders giving the sign for people to head on up the road further east, as you can hear the thump, thump of Colonel Gadhafi's heavy artillery heading this way.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

WESTERVELT: Soon, both lanes are jammed with rebel vehicles packed with fighters and their gear racing east toward Ajdabiya. Rebels gathered at the edge of that city. Many seemed confused and unsure what would come next.

Mr. HAMZA MOHAMMED SHERKS: (Speaking foreign language)

WESTERVELT: Of course, of course I was upset to retreat, says 25-year-old Hamza Mohammed Sherks, who's wearing a dirty blue camouflage uniform and a red beret. But I had to obey my commander's orders, he adds. He told us, those with only AK-47 rifles should pull back now. The fact is, most of the fighters trying to oust Colonel Gadhafi have only AK-47s.

There's a growing, sharp disconnect between leaders of the rebel's fledgling provisional government in Benghazi and the fighters in the field. In the rebel capital, officials are appointing ministers, holding press conferences and asking the West for lines of credit on seized Gadhafi assets. But their fighting force remains as disorganized and ineffectual as ever.

As night fell, some civilians - who returned to Ajdabiya only a day or so ago -were seen fleeing the city in panic once again.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, in eastern Libya.

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