TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior firepower and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi's troops on Wednesday, highlighting their weakness without Western air strikes to tip the scales in their favor.
The rapid reverse comes just two days after the rebels raced westwards along the all-important coastal road in hot pursuit of the government army whose tanks and artillery were demolished in five days of aerial bombardment in the town of Ajdabiyah.
Gaddafi's army first ambushed the insurgents' convoy of pick-up trucks outside the "brother leader's" hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a maneuver requiring the sort of discipline entirely lacking in the rag-tag rebel force.
The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf fell in quick succession to the lightning government counter-strike.
"They are coming from the desert," yelled one fighter among a group of a dozen rebels 10-15 km (6-8 miles) west of Brega training their guns south into the Sahara. Wisps of dust could be seen rising in the distance.
Scores of rebel pick-ups and cars streamed past them in a chaotic caravan east toward Brega.
In town after town, Gaddafi force's have unleashed a fierce bombardment from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which has usually forced rebels to swiftly flee.
"These are our weapons," said rebel fighter Mohammed, pointing to his assault rifle. "We can't fight Grads with them," he said before joining the rush toward Brega.
Without Western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or even hold their positions against Gaddafi's armor.
Rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.
When they advance it is often without proper reconnaissance or protection for their flanks. Their courage and enthusiasm notwithstanding, the insurgents tend to flee in disarray whenever Gaddafi forces start firing in a sustained way.
"Whether we advance 50 km (30 miles), or retreat 50 km ... it's a big country. They will go back the next day," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
"This revolution really is only five weeks old. On the political front it is very organised," he said. "Normally it takes six months to train a soldier ... We are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes."
A conference of 40 governments and international bodies agreed on Tuesday to press on with a NATO-led aerial bombardment of Libyan forces until Gaddafi complied with a U.N. resolution to end violence against civilians.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday 115 strike sorties had been flown against Gaddafi's forces in the previous 24 hours, and 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired.
Britain said two of its Tornado fighter-bombers had attacked a government armored vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the besieged western city of Misrata.
Libya's official Jana news agency said air strikes by forces of "the crusader colonial aggression" hit residential areas in the town of Garyan, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli, on Tuesday. It said several civilian buildings were destroyed and an unspecified number of people were wounded.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctions air power to protect Libyan civilians, not to provide close air support to rebel forces. That would also require troops on the ground to guide in the bombs, especially in such a rapidly changing war.
Warplanes flew overhead the battlefield for a time on Wednesday, but there was no evidence of any sustained bombardment of government forces.
Air strikes alone may not be enough to stop the pendulum swing of Libyan desert civil warfare turning into a stalemate.
The United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels, though they all stressed no decision had yet been taken. "I'm not ruling it in, I'm not ruling it out," U.S. President Barack Obama told NBC.
It is not clear however if the amateur army of teachers, lawyers, engineers, students and the unemployed know even how to properly use the weapons they already have.
Obama said he had already agreed to provide communications equipment, medical supplies and potentially transportation aid to the Libyan opposition, but no military hardware.
Russia has already accused the allies of overstepping their U.N. remit by carrying out strikes on Gaddafi's ground forces and on Wednesday warned the West against arming the rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was obvious Libya was "ripe for reforms," but Libyans themselves must decide without influence from outside.
LACK OF FOOD
Aid agencies are increasingly worried about a lack of food and medicines, especially in towns such as Misrata where a siege by Gaddafi's forces deprives them of access.
"It is difficult to even get water in from wells outside the town because of the positions of the forces," said Abdulrahman, a resident of Zintan in the west, cut off by pro-Gaddafi forces.
The U.N. refugee agency said it had reports of thousands of families living in makeshift shelters cut off from assistance.
Protection of civilians remains the most urgent goal of the air strikes, and British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Gaddafi's supporters of "murderous attacks" on Misrata.
A series of powerful explosions rocked Tripoli on Tuesday and state television said several targets in the Libyan capital had come under attack in rare daytime strikes.
(Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan, Alexander Dziadosz, Edmund Blair, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Giles Elgood)