Libya: Rebels take Ras Lanuf, Brega , Uqayla, Bin Jawad

Watch: The BBC's Ben Brown said the rebels are heading towards the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte

Libyan rebels have recaptured four more towns and are moving quickly towards Muammar Gaddafi's heartland of Sirte.

They seized the eastern coastal towns of Ras Lanuf, Brega, Uqayla and Bin Jawad after pro-Gaddafi forces withdrew, under pressure from allied air strikes.

The rebels had recaptured the port of Ajdabiya on Saturday.

US, French, British and other allied aircraft started attacking Libyan government troops eight days ago.

The military coalition was assembled after the UN Security Council authorised action to protect civilians.

Nato members met in Brussels on Sunday evening and agreed to take over command of military operations in Libya from the US-led coalition, diplomats said.

Reclaiming lost ground

Rebel forces have now advanced as far as Nofilia, just 100km (60 miles) from Sirte.

"Gaddafi's forces are now scared rats," Mohammed Ali el-Atwish, a 42-year-old rebel fighter in Bin Jawad, told AFP news agency.

Libyan rebels in Al-Egila, east of Ras Lanuf (27 March) The rebels have been encouraged by their success and say they will keep moving westwards

"They are dropping their weapons and uniforms and dressing as civilians. We are no longer concerned about Gaddafi's forces at all."

In recorded interviews released on Sunday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US had largely accomplished its goals in Col Gaddafi's Libya.

"We have taken out his armour," Mr Gates said, adding that the US would soon relinquish its leading role in the coalition.

Mrs Clinton said: "We're beginning to see, because of the good work of the coalition, his troops begin to turn back toward the west - and to see the opposition begin to reclaim the ground they had lost."

France says its aircraft destroyed at least five Libyan government jets and two helicopters on Saturday night at a government air base near rebel-held Misrata, which has become a key focus for the battle in western Libya.

Misrata is the only significant rebel-held city left in the west, and has been under heavy bombardment for days.

On Sunday, a resident of the city told Reuters the city and port area were under attack again. "We don't know whether it's artillery or mortars," he said.

Reports from Misrata say food, water and medical supplies are running low.

At the scene

After capturing Ajdabiya on Saturday, the rebels have advanced west along the coastal highway at breakneck speed.

A string of towns has fallen to them easily - Brega, Ugayla and now Ras Lanuf where we are now.

One rebel commander has told me that Colonel Gaddafi's forces are running for their lives, scattering in all directions in full retreat. He says that with the help of God the rebels could be in Sirte by Monday - but that's probably optimistic.

Sirte is the Libyan leader's birthplace and stronghold, his heartland. From now on the going will get much tougher for the rebels.

Even so they are in a state of high excitement - firing their guns into the air, screeching their tyres and doing wheel-spins as they head west.

After days of stalemate the rebels have finally gathered some momentum, even if it's only because they've had so much help from coalition air strikes that have destroyed Colonel Gaddafi's tanks and artillery on the ground.

Meanwhile, rebels in the stronghold of Benghazi say oil fields in the areas they control are producing 100,000 to 130,000 barrels per day, and that this could easily be increased to 300,000.

Ali Tarhouni, a spokesman for the rebel council in Benghazi, said they had reached a deal with Qatar that it would market the oil.

The Libyan government says coalition forces have been carrying out air strikes between Ajdabiya and Sirte.

In the capital Tripoli, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said: "We are losing many lives, military and civilians."

Meanwhile British Defence Secretary Liam Fox has told the BBC that coalition countries attacking targets in Libya will not supply arms to anti-Gaddafi rebels, despite reports that this is being actively considered.

Dr Fox said there was a UN arms embargo across the entire country, adding "We have to accept that."

The rebellion against Col Gaddafi's four decades in power began in mid-February, inspired by uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia which saw the leaders there overthrown.

But the eastern towns along the coast were lost one-by-one to advancing pro-Gaddafi forces before coalition air strikes started last week.

Libyan officials say the strikes have killed nearly 100 civilians but this cannot be independently confirmed.

libya conflict map 27 march

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