Rebels claim to have captured Gaddafis hometown

Tripoli/Washington: A series of powerful explosions today shook Muammar Gaddafi`s tribal homeland of Sirte as US and European warplanes pounded the city with rebels reported to be at its doorstep, setting the stage for a battle that may help decide the war in Libya.

Nine explosions were heard in the city early today and the latest blasts followed two explosions yesterday which has already triggered a mass exodus from the Gaddafi`s hometown, which he has turned into a well fortified garrison.

Unconfirmed reports said the rebel forces had routed pro-Gaddafi defenders and opposition spokesman Shamsi Abdul Molah told Al-Jazeera that the rebels had moved into the city at 11.30 pm last night.

"They found it to be an unarmed city. They had no problem in getting in there as they encountered no resistance," Al-Jazeera quoted him as saying in Benghazi. But there was no corroboration.

Further westwards, an intense battle for the key city of Misrata continue to rage with street fighting going on between heavily armed Gaddafi`s forces and rebels in the city centre.

Gaddafi`s forces continue to fire from tanks and artillery guns towards the city which has been under siege for almost six days.

The French air force used 20 jets backed by AWACS surveillance plane to down five Gaddafi fighters and 2 Mi-35 helicopter gunships and British warplanes destroyed three armoured vehicles.

The rapid advance westwards of the rebels comes as top Obama administration officials including Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they have received hints that key aides of Gaddafi may be ready to abandon him.

The officials predicted that the Libyan regime may crack from within as allied warplanes, resurgent rebels and the international community put more pressure on Tripoli.

"The battle of Sirte may be the undoing of Gaddafi," Los Angeles Times reported quoting US officials.

"We have lot of evidence that people around him are reaching out," Clinton told NBC.

"We are also sending a message to people around him; Do you really want to be pariah? Do you really want to end up in the International Criminal Court? Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction," she said.

Al Jazeera reported that a column of military vehicle was seen leaving the city, heading West toward the capital.

But foreign correspondents taken to the city by Gaddafi`s minders reported that the city was "quite and deserted" and there were reports that the rebels were on the outskirts.

The claim of the opposition came as their forces bolstered by coalition air strikes pushed westwards and seized control of the key towns of Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf, Uqayla, Brega and Ajdabiya in a rapid advance along the coastline.

The ease of the rebels renewed march westwards along the coast underscores the essential role of western air strikes in reversing the rebels fortune.

But, US officials said it also raised new questions of how a poorly equipped and disorganised force might fare against Gaddafi`s garrison in Sirte, where air cover may be less useful.

Gaddafi`s forces appears to be withdrawing eastwards.

Those in Bin Jawad surrendered without a fight, Al Jazeera said.

Though the Western coalition officials believe that an ultimate showdown could be at Sirte, the rebel commanders expect a major battle in the area around Tripoli as opposed to Sirte.

As western warplanes and missiles renewed their bombings of military sites in and around Tripoli, NATO agreed at a meeting in Brussels to take over the command of the `Operation Odyssey Dawn`.

The decision effectively relieved the US of leading role in the battle ending weeks of squabbling.

The NATO agreement was announced last evening by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said "NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less."