Opposition fighters in east Libya regrouped on Sunday and moved back towards Bin Jawad after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi had ambushed rebels and ejected them from the town earlier in the day, a Reuters witness said.
"We are just outside Bin Jawad. There are thuds of mortars landing near rebel positions, leaving puffs of smoke, and also the sound of heavy machine guns in the distance," Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas said in a brief report.
"There's a steady stream of rebels heading back west towards Bin Jawad," he said.
Earlier Gaddafi’s forces backed up by warplanes, pushed rebels away from the coastal town of Bin Jawad to stop their advance on Gaddafi's home town of Sirte.
Previously sky-high morale plummeted among the rebels after they were pushed back from the tiny hamlet of Bin Jawad near the Mediterranean, the furthest west they had advanced from their eastern bastion in their uprising against the Libyan strongman.
They said Gaddafi loyalists lured them into a trap, secreting themselves in homes, mingling with civilians and hunkering down on rooftops. As rebels drove on, oblivious to the hidden threat, they unleashed a massive salvo of fire.
"This is what pushed us back. This is what got us out of Bin Jawad," shouted one rebel, jumping out of a car with part of a shell cradled in his arms.
Those who spoke to AFP after fleeing the latest battle said they were powerless in the face of heavy machine gun fire and air strikes, despite having already captured much of eastern Libya.
Down the road in nearby Ras Lanuf, which cheering rebels endured heavy fighting to capture on Friday, young men argued and nerves frayed as medics in screeching ambulances rushed in casualties from the front.
Frustrated by defeat
One group stood round a pick-up truck filled with rocket launchers, arguing about what had gone wrong and how they should proceed.
"Whoever has a weapon should advance and fight," said one rebel.
"But we only have light weapons," interjected another.
"Well either that or we should all go back to Benghazi," insisted the first man. Another man just shook his head. "The problem is we have no leadership."
"What about Colonel Bashir," said someone else, referring to one of the rebel commanders most widely known in Ras Lanuf, particularly among reporters.
But the first man was unimpressed. "Who is this Colonel Bashir? I've never heard of him," he retorted.
Two others argued outside Ras Lanuf hospital as a loudhailer atop an ambulance yelled warnings to rebels not to gather in groups.
"They're hitting them in groups," one medic shouted.
"Whoever has a gun, go now and fight in Bin Jawad," said one rebel.
"No, no this is how we'll start the civil war," hit back the other.
Bloodied casualties stretchered into a small hospital shouted of betrayal.
His scalp grazed by a bullet, 21-year-old Abdul Ali Abdulkhair tried to lift himself out of bed and raised his fingers to flash the rebels' trademark V for victory sign as soon as he saw an AFP reporter.
"Really I'm very, very comfortable. I'm just perfect right now," he claimed, launching into a chant mocking the Libyan strongman's battle cry: "Alley by alley, room by room, we're going to come and get you Gaddafi."
"We were combing Bin Jawad and when we went on the main road, they hit us with the heavy machine guns," said Abdulkhair, a volunteer from Al-Baida, a town far to the east.
A French cameraman shot in the leg while travelling in a car with a group of rebels said his shattered camera saved his life.
When the bullet pierced his calf, he fell to the floor on his back. Despite the pain, he managed to take a quick photograph of a Libyan fighter lying on his stomach in a sand dune, shooting, and his own burning video camera.
"That was my camera. It saved my life," the journalist said.
Zeal and divine intervention
The opposition fighters lack training but not enthusiasm. They credit their success so far to a mix of revolutionary zeal and divine intervention.
"We are not an organized army. We don't use military tactics," said Bashir Abdul Gadir, a former colonel in Gaddafi's army now serving as an officer in the rebel force seeking to end his four decades in power. "Our tactics are revolutionary. We don't take death into account," he said.
Most of the fighters are young, with little military training. A few are armed only with knives. There appears to be little concept of discipline in their ranks.
"We don't take orders from anyone, only God, who will give us victory. We took Benghazi, Dirna, Tobrouk, and al-Bayda, without a military plan, it was God," said young rebel fighter Ali Faituri, sat in a pick up truck with a large machinegun.
Faituri is typical of many of the enthusiastic young men who appear to move without formal orders, instead advancing on plans passed between rebels by word of mouth or mobile phone, or simply joining in the action wherever they find it.
"You can't control it"
"We hear by phone from people in towns along the way that they need help. We come, free them, they join us, and we move on," said Alaadine Omran, 26, a rebel volunteer, who helps with logistics and the wounded.
Typically before opposition fighters’ movements, a group takes the lead ahead, and others then join without asking where they are going or what they are doing beyond "getting rid of the dog Gaddafi".
Tyres screech as vehicles spin round to join the charge, mostly pick up trucks loaded with men, rifles and machineguns. Most trucks are spray painted with slogans such as "revolutionary army" or "people's army".
"We watch the news, ask other youths to find out where the clashes are and go to help our brothers," said civilian volunteer Abdullah Shouaib, 27.
The collapse of Gaddafi's control in the east has left his opponents with access to abandoned military bases, vehicles and weapons.
We watch the news, ask other youths to find out where the clashes are and go to help our brothers
Civilian volunteer Abdullah Shouaib
The pro-Gaddafi security forces are a chaotic mix of regular troops and fighters in mismatched uniforms and green bandanas, heavily armed and, analysts say, motivated by the fear of opposition fighters’ retribution if Gaddafi falls.
But they appear to be struggling to re-organize after units defected, and there is also a question mark over the loyalty of the air force, with revolutionaries saying most of their bombing runs in the east fall just short of the target.
Although the rebel forces include professional soldiers as well as volunteers who have registered at opposition-held bases and received some training, they appear to be in the minority.
In Benghazi, Libya's second city, rebels have formed a military council, from whom some fighters at the front line said they took orders.
"We went to Benghazi and they registered our names and we formed a brigade," said Adem Faraj, labelling others who had not registered "hangers on".
"There's not been enough time to include them formally. But our cause is the same," he said. Opposition officer Abdul Gadir said: "This is the nature of the people's revolution. You can't control it. Only 10 percent of us are professional soldiers."
We went to Benghazi and they registered our names and we formed a brigade