Ajdabiya's sudden fall to Gadhafi's troops spurred the swift U.N. resolution authorizing international action in Libya, and its return to rebel hands on Saturday came after a week of airstrikes and missiles against the Libyan leader's military. On the road into the city on Saturday, at least eight blackened Gadhafi tanks lay on the ground.
Stores and houses were shuttered after the weeklong siege that left residents without electricity or drinking water, but drivers honked horns in celebration and flew the tricolor rebel flag. Others in the city fired their guns into the air.
Saif Sadawi, a 20-year-old rebel fighter with an RPG in his hands, says the city's eastern gate fell late Friday and the western gate fell at dawn Saturday after airstrikes on both locations.
"All of Ajdabiya is free," he said.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Gadhafi's forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.
Earlier Friday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition's eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misrata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi's siege.
On Saturday, rebels in Ajdabiya hauled away a captured rocket launcher, adding to their limited firepower.
On Friday, the U.S. commander in charge of the overall international mission, Army Gen. Carter Ham, told The Associated Press, "We could easily destroy all the regime forces that are in Ajdabiya," but the city itself would be destroyed in the process. "We'd be killing the very people that we're charged with protecting."
Instead, the focus was on disrupting the communications and supply lines that allow Gadhafi's forces to keep fighting in Ajdabiya and other urban areas like Misrata, Ham said in a telephone interview from his U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The turnaround in Ajdabiya is a boost for President Barack Obama, who has faced complaints from lawmakers from both parties that he has not sought their input about the U.S. role in the war or explained with enough clarity about the U.S. goals and exit strategy. Obama was expected to give a speech to the nation Monday.