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Libya's rebels make huge gains as they push westwards

By Kim Sengupta and Donald Macintyre

The last time the rebels made it as far west as Bin Jawad, it ended in disaster: their fighters ran into a murderous ambush, lost 70 men, and were forced into a terrifying retreat that nearly ended their campaign.

But yesterday, after a stunning sweep across the territory for which they have fought so hard and for so long, they were back.

This time, with Western air power destroying almost all that is left of the regime's armour and artillery, the mood was very different. The rebels' eyes were cast towards Sirte, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace and the centre of loyalist resistance.

After that, there is only one more goal: Tripoli. In Bin Jawad yesterday, the enemy was nowhere in sight.

Last night, anti-aircraft fire and four large explosions were reported in the capital for the ninth night and an attack on Sirte was reported for the first time.

Earlier, after a week of heated negotiations, Nato finally agreed to take full command of all aspects of military operations in Libya.

The decision ends days of wrangling and paves the way for the US to relinquish its temporary leadership of the operation.

Some Nato members — notably Turkey and Germany — have been reluctant for the alliance to take charge of the air strikes because of the risk of civilian casualties.

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was a “very significant step” by the alliance.

“Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime. Nato will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

After more than a week of strikes on Libyan targets, Washington is eager to hand over responsibility for the air offensive.

Nato expects to start enforcing the UN-authorised no-fly zone today, as well as co-ordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the arms embargo.

The shift in momentum is palpable. Rebels are now back in possession of the two key oil complexes of Ras Lanuf and Brega.

The opposition's provisional administration in Benghazi stated that Qatar, which had joined the Western coalition in sending warplanes to Libya, would be marketing the oil. However, restarting production will be difficult until the return of the foreigners who ran the plants.

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