Libyan rebels fled in headlong retreat from the superior arms and tactics of Muammar Gaddafi’s troops yesterday, exposing the insurgents’ weakness without Western airstrikes to tip the scales in their favor.

It had taken more than five days of allied bombardment to destroy government tanks and artillery in the strategic town of Ajdabiyah before rebels rushed in and chased Gaddafi’s troops 200 miles west in a two-day dash.

Two days later the rebels have been pushed back to close to where they started.

The Libyan army first ambushed the chaotic caravan of volunteers, supporters and bystanders outside Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a maneuver requiring the sort of discipline the rag-tag rebels lack.

The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf fell in quick succession to the lightning government counterstrike. Rebels showed no signs of trying to hold on to the next town, Brega, but carried on toward Ajdabiyah.

In town after town, Gaddafi force’s have unleashed a fierce bombardment from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which has forced rebels to swiftly flee.