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Libyan Forces Batter Rebel Positions On Two Fronts

Rebel fighters loaded ammunition into an anti-aircraft machine gun Tuesday as Libyan air force fighter jets flew overhead in the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf.
Roberto Schmidt
AFP/Getty Images
Rebel fighters loaded ammunition into an anti-aircraft machine gun Tuesday as Libyan air force fighter jets flew overhead in the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf.

Libyan warplanes struck the coastal city of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday as rebels braced for what they fear could be a more intense assault, while government troops bore down on the western city of Zawiya.

Air force jets carried out multiple airstrikes against rebel positions in the oil port city, NPR's Peter Kenyon reported. He said loudspeakers in Ras Lanuf broadcast requests for information on missing people a day after aerial strikes reportedly caused casualties there.

An opposition fighter perches next to a pre-Gadhafi flag as he stands guard outside the oil refinery in Ras Lanuf.
Kevin Frayer / AP
An opposition fighter perches next to a pre-Gadhafi flag as he stands guard outside the oil refinery in Ras Lanuf.

Representatives of the opposition said they have rejected an offer of negotiations from Moammar Gadhafi's government.

A spokesman for the Provisional Transitional National Council, which was established by the opposition as a de facto government in the east, said it's a matter of time until the man who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for more than four decades is gone.

"We are not worried — everybody knows it's either us or him," the spokesman, Iman Bugaighis, said at a news conference Tuesday in Benghazi. "It's a personal issue now. After the blood that has been shed, there is no return."

Libyan state television denied that Gadhafi had sent an envoy to talk to the rebels. But NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said Tripoli did make an overture "for some sort of negotiated solution to this crisis."

"I can tell you that the officials from the rebel government ... refused to have anything to do with Tripoli until Moammar Gadhafi goes," she added.

'The City Is In Ruins'

Gadhafi loyalists reportedly were battering down resistance in Zawiya, the closest rebel-held city to Tripoli. A government official said regime forces had recaptured the city, but some residents reported that rebels still held the city's main square amid a heavy barrage of residential areas.

Zawiya was sealed off and phone lines were cut, making it impossible to verify the account.

"The city is in ruins," a witness told The Associated Press. "Some buildings have been entirely destroyed and everyone on the street is shot on sight. There are many wounded, but the hospitals are running out of supplies."

The latest round of fighting on opposite ends of Libya's Mediterranean coast once again revealed the weakness and disorganization of both sides in the conflict.

Kenyon said the ad hoc rebel force in Ras Lanuf is made up mainly of laborers and truck drivers with virtually no experience handling weapons. They keep up morale by raising revolutionary chants every time Gadhafi's jets fly overhead.

"They are determined to fight as long as they are needed," Kenyon said. "We asked them who's in charge and one old man said, 'God's in charge.' "

At least 20 wounded fighters were rushed to the hospital in Ras Lanuf after Tuesday's airstrikes, some of them with legs lost and other serious injuries.

"I was hit in the arm and leg; my friend was wounded in the stomach," Momen Mohammad, 31, told the AP while lying in a hospital bed.

Opposition fighters retreated to the city after their westward advance toward Tripoli was blocked by government forces Sunday at the village of Bin Jawad, about 30 miles west of Ras Lanuf. Pro-Gadhafi forces used helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to capture the tiny desert town, forcing the rebels to retreat.

There also were reports of a government assault Monday on the rebel-held city of Misurata. A 30-year-old rebel fighter who identified himself only as Ahmed told NPR by phone that there was no new fighting in the city Tuesday. He said the airport just outside the city and some surrounding towns were controlled by pro-Gadhafi forces.

Garcia-Navarro said rebel commanders, made up mostly of former Libyan army officers who defected to the opposition, were "trying to come up with some sort of a plan that doesn't involve just rushing to the front lines and firing off their weapons."

But she said one of the biggest problems they face is a lack of supplies.

"I've seen guys on the front lines eating Twinkies and candy bars — they have no real means of getting food, no real means of getting ammunition," Garcia-Navarro said. "We've seen guys rushing back to try to Benghazi to beg the civilian government to give them weapons and to resupply them."

At a military base controlled by the rebels near Benghazi, Major Gen. Ahmed el-Ghatrani told NPR that young and inexperienced volunteers don't want to take direction from experienced hands such as himself.

He also said that unlike the early days of the fighting, Gadhafi has deployed his elite internal security brigades — about 1,500 men armed with tanks, fighter jets and heavy weapons.

No-Fly Zone Would Have Limited Impact, Report Says

The regime has been using its air power advantage more each day to check a rebel advance west toward Tripoli on the main highway leading out of the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The increasing use of air power underlines the vulnerability of the rebel forces as they attempt to march in open terrain along the Mediterranean coast and could prompt world powers to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to deny Gadhafi that edge.

But a no-fly zone over Libya would very likely have a limited impact on Gadhafi's offensives against rebel forces and civilians, according to a new report on international military might.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies said in an annual report that the use of jets by Gadhafi loyalists appeared to pose less of a threat than the deployment of attack helicopters — which can get around flight prohibitions because they are far harder to detect.

The report comes as the U.S. and its NATO allies edged closer Monday to formulating an overall response to the violence in Libya.

A White House statement Tuesday said President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to plan for the "full spectrum of possible responses" on Libya including an arms embargo and a no-fly zone.

The White House said Obama and Cameron agreed that the objective must be an end to violence and the departure of Gadhafi "as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, diplomats said the European Union was set to expand sanctions against Libya to include its sovereign wealth funds and central bank. The sanctions are expected to go into effect Friday.

NATO is increasing surveillance flights over Libya to 24 hours a day to give the alliance a better picture of both the humanitarian and military situations on the ground, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told reporters Monday. He said NATO's governing body was meeting over the next two days to come up with contingency plans for military operations to be considered at a gathering of defense ministers Thursday in Brussels, Daalder said.

British and French officials have said a no-fly resolution was being drawn up as a contingency and that it has not been decided whether to put it before the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds veto power and has rejected such a move.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) renewed his call for a no-fly zone, saying he doesn't believe that would lead inevitably to U.S. troops on the ground.

In an interview with CBS television, McCain said he understands weariness at home over U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he said the American people "are not prepared to watch ... one of the two or three worst despots in the world sit and slaughter innocent civilians."

U.N. Aid Convoy Heads For Benghazi

The U.N. World Food Program has sent its first aid convoy into rebel-held territory in eastern Libya, dispatching trucks across the Egyptian border destined for Benghazi.

The WFP said the convoy was carrying 70 metric tons of high-energy, fortified date bars to the rebel-held city. The agency also said it was preparing another 70 metric tons of date bars and 150 metric tons of wheat flour for delivery to Benghazi.

Last week, a ship bearing more than 1,000 metric tons of food turned back from Benghazi amid security concerns.

WFP has launched a $39.2 million emergency operation that it hopes will feed over 1 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia for three months.

An international aid official said loyalist soldiers were preventing some 30,000 people fleeing the chaos in Libya from crossing the border into neighboring Tunisia, the AP said.

Ibrahim Osman, director of assessment teams for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the Bangladeshis, Egyptians and other foreign workers were pulled back from Libya's Ras Ajdir border crossing and told to return to their service jobs, such as hospital janitorial staff.

With reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Ras Lanuf, Libya; Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi, Libya; and David Greene on the Libya-Tunisia border. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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NPR Staff and Wires