AJDABIYA, Libya — Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi advanced Sunday on this anxious town, a strategic linchpin on the doorstep of the opposition capital Benghazi and within grasp of a highway crucial to recapturing the eastern border and encircling the rebellion with heavy armor and artillery.
After another day of headlong retreat, this time from the refinery and port at Brega, one town west of here, the rebels prepared for what some called a last stand at Ajdabiya, taking refuge in military barracks where they stacked ammunition boxes six deep, positioned a handful of tanks and tried to bring order to a jumble of small artillery and antiaircraft guns. Bulldozers built berms three feet high near a pair of green, metal arches that mark the town’s entrance.
The fate of Ajdabiya, an eastern town of 120,000 near the Mediterranean coast, may prove decisive in the most violent and chaotic of the uprisings that have upended the Arab world. Under a sky turned gray by a menacing sandstorm, the rebels valiantly vowed victory but acknowledged the deficit posed by their weapons and pleaded for a no-flight zone that seemed a metaphor for any kind of international help.
“Our retreat is a tactic,” said Said Zway, 29, a civil-engineer-turned-fighter, at Ajdabiya’s entrance. “We can wait until they impose a no-flight zone. If they don’t, what can we do, my friend? We fight and die. God is with us, God willing.”
From its ecstatic beginning, Libya’s uprising has taken a darker turn, as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have recaptured Zawiyah, near Tripoli, and are now besieging Misurata, a commercial capital and an oasis of rebel control in the west. Officials in Tripoli talk with bluster, and a more sullen mood has settled over Benghazi, where reports of lawlessness grow.