TRIPOLI/RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan government troops, tanks and warplanes attacked rebels on the western and eastern fronts on Tuesday, pressing their campaign to crush an insurrection against Muammar Gaddafi.
Government artillery pounded Zawiyah, the closest rebel-held city to the capital Tripoli as trapped residents cowered from the onslaught, witnesses said.
In the east, a swathe of which is under rebel control, air strikes targeted rebel positions behind the frontline around the oil town of Ras Lanuf on the Mediterranean coast.
Apparently undeterred by Gaddafi’s renewed show of force, the rebel leadership said that if he stepped down within 72 hours it would not seek to bring him to justice.
Earlier, the rebels said they rejected an offer from the Libyan leader to negotiate his surrender of power. The government denied any such talks had taken place.
On the international front, foreign governments struggled to agree on a united strategy for dealing with the turmoil in the oil-producing country, which Gaddafi has ruled in an autocratic and quixotic style since seizing power in a 1969 military coup.
Britain and France led a drive at the United Nations for a no-fly zone over Libya, a move that would prevent Gaddafi from unleashing air raids or from flying in reinforcements. But Russia and China, who have veto power in the U.N. Security Council, were cool to the idea.
The U.S. government, whose interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan enraged many of the world’s Muslims, said it was weighing up what military options could achieve.
Gaddafi’s forces launched a concerted attack with tanks and artillery on Tuesday to recapture Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli and near an important oil refinery.
Rebels still control the central square and were using loud hailers to urge residents to help defend their positions, said a witness, a Ghanaian worker who fled the town on Tuesday.
Zawiyah, the closest rebel-held town to Tripoli, has been the focus of heavy fighting for days and the exiled opposition group Libyan Human Rights Solidarity said government forces were tightening their encirclement.
“The rebels are in control but there is an exchange of fire going on,” said the Ghanaian. “They are in the square.”
A government spokesman said troops were now in control but a small group of rebel fighters was still putting up resistance.
“Maybe 30-40 people, hiding in the streets and in the cemetery. They are desperate,” he told Reuters in Tripoli.
A Libyan man who lives abroad said he spoke by phone on Tuesday to a friend there who described desperate scenes.
“Many buildings are completely destroyed, including hospitals, electricity lines and generators,” he said.
“People cannot run away, it’s cordoned off. They cannot flee. All those who can fight are fighting, including teenagers. Children and women are being hidden.”
Tanks were firing everywhere, he said.
The reports could not be verified independently as foreign correspondents have been prevented from entering Zawiyah and other cities near the capital without an official escort.
The airstrikes in the east hit at rebels behind the no-man’s land between the coastal towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, 550 km (340 miles) east of Tripoli and the site of oil terminals.
One strike smashed a house in a residential area of Ras Lanuf, gouging a big hole in the ground floor.
Mustafa Askat, an oil worker, said one bomb had wrecked a water line and this would affect water supplies to the city.
“We have a hospital inside, we have sick people and they need water urgently,” he said.
The rebel army — a rag-tag outfit largely made up of young volunteers and military defectors — had made swift gains in the first week of the uprising which saw them take control of the east and challenge the government near Tripoli.
But their momentum appears to have stalled as Gaddafi’s troops pushed back using war planes, tanks and heavy weapons.
Rebels said government forces had dug in their tanks near Bin Jawad while rebels retreated to Ras Lanuf. The two towns are about 60 km (40 miles) apart on the strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean sea that leads to Tripoli.
No casualty toll from either front was available.
72 HOUR DEADLINE
Gaddafi has poured scorn on the rebels, denouncing them variously as drug-addled youths or al Qaeda-backed terrorists, and said he will die in Libya rather than surrender.
The head of the rebel National Libyan Council said on Tuesday it would not hound Gaddafi if he stepped down in the next 72 hours,
“If he leaves Libya immediately, during 72 hours, and stops the bombardment, we as Libyans will step back from pursuing him for crimes,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, an ex-justice minister, told Al Jazeera television by telephone from the rebels’ eastern stronghold, Benghazi.
A rebel spokesman said earlier the council had spurned an overture from Gaddafi’s camp for talks but a Libyan ministry official dismissed reports of the offer as “absolute nonsense.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday that London was talking to its allies on a resolution for a no-fly zone, including an “appropriate legal basis.” A French source said France also was working on such an initiative.
The Arab League and several Gulf states have also called for a no-fly zone, important support given suspicions in the Muslim world about Western intentions.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said action should be taken only with international backing. The White House said all options were on the table, including arming rebels.
Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with veto powers, said it opposed foreign military intervention and China was also cool to the no-fly zone proposal.
“We believe Libya’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence should be respected,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said in Beijing.
The Libyan uprising is the bloodiest of a tide of pro-democracy protests against autocratic rulers and monarchs in North Africa and Middle East which has already seen the longtime leaders of Tunisia and Egypt dethroned this year.
The phenomenon has left the West struggling to formulate a new direction for a region that sits on vast reserves of oil and where stability was until now the political priority.
Brent crude dropped to below $113 per barrel on Tuesday before creeping back to $114.00, $1.04 lower on the day, by 9:00 a.m. EST (1400 GMT).
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Ajdabiya, Mohammed Abbas in Ras Lanuf, Stefano Ambrogi in London, Writing by Angus MacSwan: Editing by Giles Elgood)