BREGA, Libya – Libyan rebels on Monday took back much of a strategic oil town that has repeatedly changed hands in weeks of battles with Moammar Gadhafi's forces along the nation's northern coast.
There were bursts of artillery and shelling from Gadhafi's forces in the west as rebels pushed into eastern sections of the town. Women and children were seen fleeing Brega as the battle raged.
"New Brega is under control of our forces and we are mopping up around the university," said Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a former member of Libya's air force who had a satellite phone and a GPS around his neck.
Brega stretches out over several miles of the coast and is concentrated in three main sections: New Brega, a largely residential area on the east end; West Brega, which includes a refinery and housing for oil workers; and a university between them. West Brega was still contested.
The uprising that began in February against Gadhafi's 42-year rule has reached a stalemate, with a series of towns along one stretch of Mediterranean coastline passing back and forth multiple times between the two sides. Though the regime's forces are more powerful and plentiful, they have been unable to decisively defeat a poorly equipped and badly organized rebel force backed by NATO airstrikes that have kept the Gadhafi loyalists in check.
Rebel forces made up of defected army units and armed civilians have seized much of Libya's eastern coast, but have been unable to push westward toward the capital, Tripoli. Two rebel advances on Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold on the road to Tripoli, were cut well short, and government forces pushed the opposition back 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more after each attempt. Rebels were hoping for more this time.
"We're advancing. By today we'll have full control of Brega," said Salam Idrisi, 42, a rebel fighter. "We're more organized now, and that's played a big role."
Italy on Monday recognized the rebel-led Libyan National Transitional Council as the country's only legitimate voice on Monday, becoming only the third country, after France and Qatar, to do so.