In the distance and high above, a Libyan air force jet circled over the town of Brega, a key oil port in eastern Libya around 330km from Sirte, one of Muammar Gaddafi's last remaining strongholds.
As scores of rebel fighters armed with AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers watched from their staging point on the main road into town, the jet dipped and dropped its ordinance. A plume of smoke rose from Brega, and the sound of the explosion washed over the assembled crowd.Somewhere near the town, anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The jet ascended and disappeared into the glare of the sun. A minute later, it reappeared and descended rapidly, coming straight for the road. It swooped low and sped overhead; a moment after it passed, an explosion erupted from the desert 80 metres away, shooting black smoke and sand into the air and scattering the rebels in different directions down the road.
It was a rare event: a Libyan military airstrike witnessed directly by foreign journalists. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but a coordinated raid on Brega on Wednesday that witnesses said involved at least six jeeps and heavily armed troops left at least five civilians dead -- one of them 12-years-old -- and injured at least 21 more. It illustrated how the conflict between Gaddafi loyalists and opponents that began with street protests has quickly become something that looks more like an armed rebellion.
Early on Wednesday morning, reports of an attack on Brega reached Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the heart of the uprising. Gaddafi forces had retaken the town, airport, and refinery and petrochemical plant, witnesses said.
The claim seemed plausible: during a visit to Brega and nearby Ajdabiya on Monday, Al Jazeera found the oil-rich front lines of the rebellion lightly defended by irregular fighters, ill-equipped and undisciplined, more prone to firing their weapons in the air than setting up defences.
The number of Gaddafi troops was unclear, but they reportedly arrived before dawn and easily pushed the rebel troops back with fire from assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and air support.
At the main checkpoint outside Ajdabiya, close to Brega and around 160km south of Benghazi, hundreds of opposition fighters had heeded the call to come to Brega's aid. Civilian cars filled the desert around the checkpoint; their occupants milled around the main road, cheering as armed rebels drove by in vans and pick-up trucks.
The anti-government forces largely had little
military training and no clear leadership