Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi struck hard at rebels advancing towards Tripoli and pounded the oil port eastern city of Ras Lanuf, as the US mulled land and air options amid growing pressure to arm the out-gunned opposition.
Pro-Gaddafi troops used fighters, gunships, tanks and heavy artillery to hold back the movement of the rebels towards his bastion Tripoli and used artillery and rockets to target them in Bin Jawad, Tobruk, Ras Lanuf and Misurata, Al Jazeera channel said.
It said there was fierce fighting in Misurata, located between Tripoli and Gaddafi's hometown Sirte, with reports of at least 18 people killed. "For a few days the rebels were making gains, but overnight it would appear that pro-Gaddafi forces took some ground," the Arab channel said.
The see-saw battles between the rebels, seeking the ouster of the Libyan leader who has ruled for 41 years, and loyalists entered the 21st day, amid global concerns that the fighting could drag for months. Amid an exodus of foreign workers, the UN and the EU announced that they were dispatching fact-finding missions to the north African nation. US media reports said that President Barack Obama was coming under heavy pressure to act to stop attacks by Gaddafi's men on civilians.
The New York Times said the US military had prepared a blue print of land, air and sea options in Libya in case Washington and its NATO allies decide to intervene there. The options, it said, could range from arming the rebels to putting hi-tech air craft in the international air space to jam Libyan military communication to sending teams of special forces to lead and guide the rebels.
"Euphoria in anti-government strongholds is fading as Gaddafi's forces draw line in sand on roads to key city of Sirte," Al Jazeera reported from the frontline. Sirte is the hometown of the Libyan leader, who has made it a prestige to hold it. Eight deaths including six rebel fighters were killed in the battle of Bin Jawad. "For a few days the rebels made gains, but overnight it would appear that pro-Gaddafi forces are on the offensive and have taken some ground," Al Jazeera said.
Hard pressed, the rebels are asking for UN backed air strikes as Gaddafi's Russian fighters and helicopter gunships are playing havoc with them. The rebels also say that Gaddafi is using African mercenaries to suppress an uprising against his rule. In the first overtures to the rebels, the Gaddafi government offered to open talks with them but this was promptly rejected.
In an interview to television channel France 24, Gaddafi held the al-Qaeda responsible for plunging the country into chaos. The embattled leader said that his country was an important partner of the West in combating Al Qaeda and played a key role in checking sub-Saharan illegal migrants moving into Europe.
"There are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean," he told the television channel. Comparing the Palestinians to Al Qaeda, he said: "Even the Israelis in Gaza, when they moved into the Gaza strip, moved in with tanks to fight such extremists. It's the same thing here. We have small armed groups who are fighting us. We did not use force from the outset ... Armed units of the Libyan army have had to fight small armed Al Qaeda bands. That is what's happened," he claimed.
Meanwhile, the rebels claimed to have captured some commanders of Gaddafi's forces in the battle for Misrata and threatened to put them on television. Amid fears of a protracted civil war, heavy firing was reported in the capital Tripoli earlier. "It is unclear who is carrying out the shooting or what caused it. Automatic weapon rounds, some of them of heavy calibre were fired," Al Jazeera reported.
Over 1,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 civilians, mostly foreign workers, have been forced to flee the country, according to the UN, which said more than one million people fleeing the Libya and inside the country needed humanitarian aid.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has appealed to Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa to protect human rights and comply with a recent Security Council resolution to end the unabated violence raging in the country. "The Secretary-General discussed the increasingly troubling humanitarian situation, in particular the plight of migrant workers," a statement from the UN said.
Ban also called on the authorities to "ensure the safety of all foreign nationals and unhindered access for humanitarian organisations to people in need." Kusa has agreed to the immediate dispatch of a humanitarian assessment team to Tripoli, according to the UN.
The Secretary-General has called for "immediate halt to the government's disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets" and warned that those committing war crimes would be held accountable. Last week, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced that he will investigate war crimes allegedly committed by the Libyan leader and his loyalists.
Valerie Amos, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said in a statement that the Benghazi Red Crescent reported that Misrata was under attack by government forces. "Humanitarian organisations need urgent access now," she said. "People are injured and dying and need help immediately".