BIN JAWWAD, Libya -- Rebel forces fought their way Monday toward Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.
Their rapid advance came on the back of international airstrikes that have battered Gadhafi's air force, armor and troops over the past week. The rebels have now recaptured all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them closer than ever to Sirte -- within 60 miles.
Some residents were fleeing the city of 100,000, as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Gadhafi's son al-Saadi and allied militiamen streamed to positions on the city's outskirts to defend it, witnesses said. Sirte -- where a significant air and military base is located -- was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and Monday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.
The advance on Sirte and the flip-flop in the conflict's momentum brought into sharper relief the central ambiguity of the international mission in Libya. When Gadhafi's forces were besieging rebel-held cities in the east last week, allied airstrikes on his troops more directly fit into the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians. But those strikes have now allowed rebels to go on the assault.
Russia on Monday criticized the international campaign, saying it had overstepped its U.N. mandate to protect civilians and had taken sides in a civil war.
NATO's commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, deflected suggestions that international airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces were essentially providing air cover for advancing rebels, insisting that the military alliance's mission is purely designed to protect civilians.
President Barack Obama will make his case for U.S. involvement in Libya to an anxious public Monday night, while officials offered assurances that military action there does not set a precedent for how the U.S. will handle similar uprisings throughout the Middle East.
White House aides were reluctant to spell out details of Obama's speech, set for 7:30 p.m. Monday.