BIN JAWWAD, Libya — The Libyan rebel forces’ westward charge was repulsed Monday by a barrage of tank and artillery fire from forces guarding one of Moammar Gadhafi’s most crucial bastions of support, while the U.S. military warned on Monday that the insurgents’ rapid advances could quickly be reversed without continued coalition air support.
“The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned in an email on Monday. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”
His remarks came after U.S. and European bombs battered the coastal city of Sirte — the rebels’ next objective — in Gadhafi’s tribal homeland on Sunday night, permitting the insurgents to advance to within 45 miles of the city.
The rebels had pushed west on Sunday from Ajdabiya past the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanouf, recapturing the two important refineries, and then set their sights on Sirte. But on Monday there was no sign of a rebel takeover of Sirte and the city seemed quiet, although a stream of civilian cars and some military vehicles was seen heading west from Sirte toward Tripoli, 225 miles away.
By late afternoon, however, hundreds of rebel cars and trucks came speeding down the road to a checkpoint near Bin Jawwad, a town directly east of Sirte that has switched hands three times in the last month.
The rebel advance had been too easy, and there had been no resistance, said Sherif Layas, who fought with the rebels. “This made us go forward,” he said. “And then we met the tanks.” With that, he said, they panicked and retreated en masse.
The government’s loss of Sirte could help decide the war, since it blocks the rebels’ advance toward the west and Tripoli. Ham’s warning, however, offered a somber counterpoint and underscored the essential role of Western airstrikes — now focused mainly on Gadhafi’s ground troops — in reversing the rebels’ fortunes. It also framed anew the question of how the poorly equipped rebel forces might fare against Gadhafi’s garrison in Sirte, where air cover may be less useful.
Left open, as well, was the question of how the allies could justify airstrikes on Gadhafi’s forces around Sirte if, as seems to be the case, they enjoy widespread support in the city and pose no threat to civilians.
On Monday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, strongly criticized the allied attacks, saying, “We consider that intervention by the coalition in what is essentially an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution,” news agencies reported.
The resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. It also called for an arms embargo that applies to the entire territory of Libya, which means that any outside supply of arms to the opposition would have to be covert.