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Rebel fighters put on a brave face even as they retreat after suffering defeat at the hands of forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi. Some fear that Kadafi will continue to push east toward Benghazi.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Rebel fighters bring a wounded comrade to a hospital in the port city. By late afternoon, rebels were retreating east toward Ajdabaya and Benghazi after a fierce fighting with Kadafi loyalists.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Rebel fighters scuffle at a checkpoint as morale plummets in the face of defeat. After a week of fierce fighting, the outmatched rebel forces were in full retreat eastward.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A weary rebel fighter rides on the back of a pickup truck joining the retreat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Hospital personnel begin to remove the bodies of two slain rebel fighters.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A rebel fighter weeps after bringing his gravely wounded brother to the hospital.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Rebel forces wait to pull out after an unrelenting onslaught from forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Vehicles clog the two-lane highway out of the city as rebel forces retreat.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Seif Islam Kadafi, son of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, addresses a group of supporters in the capital, pledging to take the fight to the rebels.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Students at the Zahra Fatah middle school, reopened Wednesday, return for the second day, walking amid hallways adorned with portraits of Moammar Kadafi. The students cheered in support of him as they raced around the building in front of television cameras.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Students at the Zahra Fatah middle school shout in support of Kadafi.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Students arrive at Zahra Fatah middle school in the Libyan capital.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Backpacks and notebooks are back in classrooms at Zahra Fatah middle school in the Libyan capital.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Students at Zahra Fatah middle school return for the second day.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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Rebels retreat from pro-Kadafi forces in Libya

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Rebels retreat from pro-Kadafi forces in Libya

Times photographers Luis Sinco and Rick Loomis are in Libya covering the conflict. Loomis is with  a government-sponsored tour in the capital, Tripoli. Sinco is working in rebel-held territory in eastern Libya and filed this report after witnessing their retreat farther east:

Few things look so forlorn as an army in retreat.

After a week of fierce fighting against forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, the ragtag rebel army beat a hasty retreat Thursday from the oil town of Ras Lanuf, leaving the future of breakaway eastern Libya in doubt.

It was not a pretty sight. Undisciplined and untrained rebel volunteers scuffled with each other, some urging their comrades to stand and fight. But  most realized the futility of continuing to take on Kadafi’s better armed and trained military for now.

Along the only route out of Ras Lanuf, battle-weary rebels boarded pickup trucks for the long ride to the rear. Many immediately fell asleep as they trekked out of the desert. Some wept along the roadside. Some tried to put on a brave face, weakly flashing the now familiar victory sign as they pulled out.

A steady stream of ambulances brought the dead and wounded to hospitals in Port Brega and Ajdabaya. One fighter told me that some of the casualties were left behind. The earlier high morale had evaporated, and many were in a surly mood.

Unlike a week ago, when they triumphantly moved the front line to Bin Jawwad with little resistance, few uttered the words “sura, sura” or “picture, picture.” None posed proudly beside their antiquated antiaircraft artillery, and instead insisted on no photographs. One rebel brusquely pushed me aside when I raised my camera.

The only time they wanted me to take a picture was when an ambulance pulled to a stop and the side door slid open to reveal an older man with a brushy beard and the top of his head blown off. A pair of rebels pushed me to the front of a gawking crowd. The dead man was a bloody mess and I declined to photograph him. As I walked away, the rebels stared with disbelief, their eyes imploring what was wrong with me.

Back in Port Brega, I saw two dead fighters wrapped in thick blankets in a truck bed. A rebel bent down to kiss one of the men’s hands. Several then gently lifted the bodies from the vehicle, placed them on stretchers and carried them into a morgue.

Inside, hospital personnel removed the men’s shoes, socks and belts. They emptied their pockets of identification, cigarettes and money before tying together their thumbs and big toes and sliding them into refrigerated chambers.

Outside, a large gathering pressed against the hospital gates, shouting “God is great!” A young man sat near the entrance and shed tears for his brother, who was gravely wounded. The ground was littered with cigarette butts, empty water bottles, crushed tuna cans and shell casings. The air was silent of celebratory gunfire.

You could almost see this coming. Three weeks ago, these men were butchers, bakers, laborers, teachers and clerks. They possessed no military expertise or rudimentary skills with weapons. They simply got caught up in the revolutionary fervor against a hated and ruthless dictator.

There was no training, no strategy and no grand plan. Every so-called colonel I’ve met in Benghazi sits behind a large desk surrounded by would-be soldiers smoking and watching television.

After a week of killing and dying the front moved about 100 miles to Bin Jawwad and back again to Port Brega where it all started. This is the reality, and the dream of an easy march to Tripoli has all but died.

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