Rebels seeking to advance toward the hometown of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and open a new front threatening his capital were battered from the ground and air, forcing them to retreat along a stretch of Mediterranean coast vital to both sides.

Los Angeles Times

RAS LANUF, Libya — Rebels seeking to advance toward the hometown of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and open a new front threatening his capital were battered from the ground and air, forcing them to retreat along a stretch of Mediterranean coast vital to both sides.

A bloodied convoy of rebel vehicles retreated from Bin Jawwad, the western front of the rebels' advance in eastern Libya, and regrouped 27 miles to the east in Ras Lanuf, whose oil complex and port the rebels had seized two days earlier.

A sudden counterattack Sunday by pro-Gadhafi forces seemed to stun the rebels, who a few hours earlier had spoken of pushing past Bin Jawwad, which they'd captured the previous day, to lay siege to Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold where thousands of pro-government fighters have massed.

Bin Jawwad lies on the fault line between western Libya, controlled by Gadhafi, and eastern regions liberated from Gadhafi by the opposition last month. Gadhafi's forces also attacked rebels holding two towns close to the capital on Sunday.

If the rebels managed to capture Sirte, they would have a relatively clear path to the capital, confronting Gadhafi with a new threat on his eastern flank. Currently, to reinforce opposition groups battling pro-government forces in Tripoli and nearby Misurata, rebel fighters must take a dangerous detour south through the Sahara Desert.

It is equally important for rebels to hold Ras Lanuf, home to an oil refinery and petrochemical complex, a port and a small airport. By holding Ras Lanuf and Port Brega, the rebels control the flow of petroleum in eastern Libya, which produces three-quarters of the country's oil.

In addition to the fighting in Bin Jawwad on Sunday, an airstrike by government warplanes targeted Ras Lanuf, destroying three hangars at a small military base.

Government helicopter gunships strafed rebels in the town center of Bin Jawwad. The rebels also were pounded by artillery and mortars, and picked off by snipers who fired from rooftops and lobbed grenades. Several rebels said at least one jet fighter plane also attacked their positions.