AJDABIYA, Libya — The front line for control of Libya moved to its easternmost point in three weeks on Saturday as forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi stormed this rebel-held town in a fleet of Toyota pickups.
Rebels who swept in to defend Ajdabiya, 100 miles from the opposition capital of Benghazi, were hit by pro-Gadhafi snipers and a rain of artillery shells. Street battles raged for hours in the town, which was largely empty of noncombatants.
There was no sign of NATO aircraft, whose strikes on Gadhafi loyalists had been crucial to rebel military successes.
Libyan state television showed what it claimed were live images of Gadhafi supporters celebrating in the streets of Ajdabiya, though by nightfall rebels said they had chased most of the loyalists out of town. Fighting continued near the town's western gate, which Gadhafi's forces have pummeled since Thursday with missile strikes and mortar rounds.
Rebels said they captured three Gadhafi loyalists, including a high-ranking military officer, but that could not be confirmed. Fighters also said a rebel helicopter had been shot down.
The battle appeared to show a rebel movement hanging by a thread, barely able to retain a key gateway to their capital. The opposition forces seemed surprised when Gadhafi's fighters — riding in about 30 pickups, some equipped with Russian-made Grad missile launchers — attacked Ajdabiya from three directions, including the southern desert and two western roads.
The loyalist attack showed the degree to which the Gadhafi forces have adapted to conditions on the ground, where heavy tanks and artillery have become easy targets for NATO jets enforcing a U.N. resolution intended to protect civilians.
Switching to civilian vehicles and light weapons, the Gadhafi forces are now using the same equipment as the rebels, confusing NATO air crews and leading to two mistaken NATO airstrikes on rebel positions that killed at least 18 people in the past week.
Meanwhile, Gadhafi made his first public appearance in weeks with a visit to a school in the capital, Tripoli, the Associated Press reported. Children jumped on desks and gave fist-pumping chants: "The people want Moammar the leader!"