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Nato airstrikes help Libyan rebels

Libyan rebels said Nato airstrikes have helped them drive Muammar Gaddafi's forces out of a hard-fought eastern city that is the gateway to the opposition's stronghold.

In the capital Tripoli, African leaders met with Gaddafi to try to negotiate an end to the fighting and planned to press their efforts with the rebels in a separate meeting on Monday.

Four airstrikes largely stopped what had been heavy shelling of Ajdabiya by government forces, rebel battlefield commander and spokesman Colonel Hamid Hassy said. Nato's leader of the operation said the airstrikes destroyed 11 tanks near Ajdabiya and another 14 near Misrata, the only city rebels still hold in the western half of Libya.

Mr Hassy said Gaddafi's forces fled the western gate of Ajdabiya and by mid-afternoon on Sunday had been pushed back about 40 miles west of the city. However, sporadic shelling could still be heard around western Ajdabiya.

Mohammed Idris, the supervisor of the hospital in Ajdabiya, said 38 people died in the fighting over the weekend, including 20 Gaddafi fighters and three rebels killed.

The main front line in Libya's uprising runs along a highway on the country's northern Mediterranean coast that leads out of the rebels' de facto capital of Benghazi in the opposition-held eastern half of the country and toward the regime's western stronghold in the capital Tripoli.

Government forces are trying to regain territory lost to the opposition, which wants to topple Gaddafi after more than four decades in power. The Gaddafi loyalists have been pounding Ajdabiya in their most sustained offensive since being driven back west by international airstrikes last month.

If Gaddafi's forces took the city, they would have a clear path to Benghazi, Libya's second largest city about 100 miles away along the coast.

The rebels claimed success as South African President Jacob Zuma and the heads of Mali and Mauritania arrive in Tripoli to try to broker a ceasefire. Gaddafi has ignored the ceasefire he announced after western airstrikes were authorised last month, and the government has rejected the rebels' conditions for a stop in fighting.

Rebels had been growing critical of Nato, which accidentally hit opposition fighters in deadly airstrikes twice this month. They have complained that the alliance was too slow and imprecise, but Mr Hassy said it is getting better.

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