AL-UQAYLA, Libya - Rebels opposed to Muammar Gaddafi moved towards the major oil terminal of Ras Lanuf on Friday as an air strike just missed a rebel-held eastern military base which houses a big ammunition store.
"We're going to take it all, Ras Lanuf, Tripoli," Magdi Mohammed, an army defector, fingering the pin of a grenade, told Reuters at the rebels' front-line checkpoint.
About two dozen rebels armed with Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers were spearheading a force intent on taking Ras Lanuf, 600 km (400 miles) east of Tripoli. The rebels had driven Gaddafi forces back to the port earlier in the week.
The rebels, who were about 40 km (25 miles) east of the port, expected to reach it by Friday evening or by early Saturday morning.
The spearhead force followed other rebel units who had taken to the desert away from the coastal road after the intervention of their commander who warned that staying on the strategic route was dangerous.
"We've fanned out in the desert because this dog Gaddafi has desert cars and fighter planes. It's harder for them to see us in the desert," said Adel Al Imami, a former officer with Gaddafi's brigades, now with the self-styled Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade.
Young men randomly fired guns in the air, and tore around in open top four-wheel-drive trucks, spray painted with slogans, or "ARMY" on them.
There were discipline problems between the youths and the regular army defector who was leading them.
"Get back! (from the road) All of you, I told you to get back," rebel front-line commander and professional soldier Bashir Abdul Gadr shouted at the group of young rebels, one younger than 20 and armed with only a knife.
The young men took to the Sahara in a flanking move, and insisted others should come and reinforce their outpost to push forward to Ras Lanuf.
"His problem is our enthusiasm. He's telling us to wait, that we'll be wiped out by Gaddafi's forces if we advance," said one of the youths. "But the youth, we want to go on, and we want others to come with us," said Muraja Othman, 30, wearing a keffiyeh and clutching a rifle.
It was not clear how far behind them were the armoured vehicles, including five tanks, this correspondent had seen previously further east or when other rebel forces would reinforce the spearhead group.
Earlier on Friday, a Libyan warplane bombed just beyond the walls of a military base used to store huge amounts of ammunition and now held by rebels in the eastern town of Ajdabiyah but did not hit it.
"We were sat here, heard the jet, then the explosion and the earth shook. They fell outside the walls," Hassan Faraj, who was guarding the munitions store at the Haniyeh base, told Reuters.
Gaddafi's air force mounted a similar attack on the facility earlier this week, hitting in and around the base but not striking anything of significance.
The base comprises 35 bunkers. Earlier this week, this correspondent was shown one bunker packed with 10,000 tonnes of ammunition.
Warplanes raided eastern towns on Thursday after launching a ground assault on Brega on Wednesday that rebels repulsed.
One rebel Libyan military officer, a defector from Gaddafi's armed forces, said earlier this week he believed the warplanes had missed on purpose because their pilots did not want to kill fellow Libyans.
Another rebel volunteer, Aziz Saleh, said two rockets had been fired in Friday's attack. They had landed just outside the walls of the base, he said. "I saw it myself, there were two rockets," he said.
Rebels guarding the base have expressed fears that a hit on the weapons dumps there would cause damage for miles around.
Ahmed Jabreel, an aide to ex-justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil who heads the rebels' council now based in Benghazi, said air strikes to set up a "no-fly" zone were needed to help rebels topple Gaddafi, who has refused to step down despite a revolt.
The rebels' National Libyan Council has called for U.N.-backed air strikes against what they say are African mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi.
Libyan officials denied air force planes bombed civilians.
Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's son, has said an air attack earlier this week on Brega, another rebel-held town, was designed to scare off militia fighters and gain control of oil terminals.
The Pentagon has said there was evidence that Gaddafi forces were dropping ordnance but it was not clear if warplanes were bombing rebel forces.
Brega, a key oil exporting terminal, was bombed on Wednesday and Thursday. Ajdabiyah was also bombed on Thursday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned against "loose talk" about a no-fly zone, saying it would require an attack on Libya to destroy its air defences.
He and other officials have listed logistical and diplomatic hurdles to such action.
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