By RYAN LUCAS and DIAA HADID
The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 11:36 AM
TOBRUK, Libya -- Moammar Gadhafi's forces attacked a town west of Tripoli with tanks and artillery on Monday, expanding a campaign to clear rebels from Libya's western front around the capital. In the east, the government's offensive was slowed by opposition forces digging in at a key oil port.
The regime's campaign in the west appeared to be hitting problems. Government shelling of the opposition-held city of Misrata that lasted until Monday morning stopped during the day. Rebels on Monday reported that fighting had erupted among pro-Gadhafi troops surrounding the city, apparently after some in their ranks had refused to attack.
Abdel-Fattah Ahmed, an opposition official in Misrata, said he had information - apparently from rebel fighters close to the pro-Gadhafi positions - that some of the government troops had "run off into the brush. No one has heard from them - we dont know if they are alive or have been killed." But other residents in the city said it was still unclear if there had been a munity on the Gadhafi side.
Libya's upheaval has turned into a two-front conflict along the country's Mediterranean coast, where the majority of the population lives. Gadhafi appears to have somewhat of an upper hand. But his forces don't seem strong enough to overwhelm the rebels - setting the stage for a longer, grinding conflict as the West debates whether to intervene, mulling the imposition of a no-fly zone that the rebels have been pleading for.
In the east, Gadhafi forces have launched an offensive trying to push back the long stretch of territory controlled by rebels - nearly the entire eastern half of the country.
There government troops have scored victories using overpowering bombardments with artillery, tanks, warplanes and warships. Such an assault drove rebel fighters out of the oil port of Ras Lanouf several days ago, and another such bombardment rained down on Sunday on rebels holding the next oil facility to the east, Brega.
But the regime offensive appears to be hampered by a lack of manpower: They can drive out rebels with barrages, but not necessarily hold the territory. After fleeing the bombardment Sunday, the rebels then pushed back into Brega in the evening and claimed to have captured dozens of fighters from Gadhafi's elite Khamis Brigade.
On Monday, about 2,000 rebel fighters - mainly members of a special commando unit that defected to the opposition - held Brega's residential district, while pro-Gadhafi troops controlled the industrial oil facilities some distance away, said rebel spokesman Abdul-Bari Zwei. Rebel fighters were searching the residential area for any remaining Gadhafi troops.
The rebel weakness, however, is in its supply lines: To get ammunition, reinforcements and arms to the front, it must drive along open desert highways, exposed to government airstrikes. Gadhafi warplanes struck at least three targets Monday morning in the city of Ajdabiya, west of Brega, missing a weapons storage site but hitting rebel fighters at a checkpoint in an attempt to stop supplies, rebels said.
Libyan state TV showed some images Monday from Brega port, claiming that it was in government control and at peace. The announcer urged Russia, China and India to invest in Libya's oil sector.
For the past week, the two sides have been battling for control over the two oil ports Brega and Ras Lanouf. But even if government troops take Brega as well, they may face even tougher resistance if they try to move further east, on the heavily populated cities that the opposition holds. The first of those cities is Ajdabiya, 480 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
Western Libya remains Gadhafi's stronghold, centered on Tripoli where his militiamen have crushed any attempts at an uprising. But since early on in the revolt, which began Feb. 15, several cities in the west fell into rebel hands. Regime forces on Friday took back the most crucial of those cities, Zawiya, which lies on the capital's doorstep, after a reportedly bloody and destructive week-long siege.
On Monday, pro-Gadhafi forces launched an attempt to take another, nearby town, Zwara, 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of Tripoli, close to the Tunisian border.
Government troops surrounded the town of 45,000 and bombarded it with tanks and artillery for hours starting in the morning, several residents said. At least four rebel fighters were killed in the barrage, said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution against him. The sound of gunfire could be heard over the telephone as he spoke.
One fighter, Shukri Nael, said he was among rebels who fended off an assault at a rebel checkpoint at one of the entrances to the city.
"I don't care how far the Gadhafi forces went East or how many cities they take back - this is a chance for me to die for this country and become a martyr," he said.
On Sunday, regime forces began shelling the most significant rebel-held city in the west - Misrata, Libya's third largest city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
Troops on the city's outskirts and on ships off shore had sealed the city, cutting off water pipes to many of its neighborhoods and preventing water tankers from reaching the residents, said a local doctor and other residents. Residents were conserving existing water and food supplies, he said.
Opposition fighters were building sandbag fortifications and other defenses in anticipation that Gadhafi troops, positioned at an air base and military college about six miles (10 kilometers) from the city could launch an assault.
On Monday morning, a barrage of shelling slammed into houses on the edge of the city, said one resident. But by the afternoon the guns fell silent.
"There are divisions inside the (pro-Gadhafi) militia," said one rebel fighter, citing reports from fellow fighters closest to the government troops. "Some of the forces don't want to enter the town and attack civilians. Others want to attack the city, Others want to join the rebels. Those wanting to attack the town are attacking the refuseniks."
The report of divisions could not be independently confirmed.
The opposition has been pleading with the West to impose a no-fly zone to help balance the scales with Gadhafi's forces. But for weeks, Western nations have been divided and hesitant on the move.
France and Britain were making an accelerated push Monday for a no-fly zone as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top diplomats from the G-8 group of prominent world economies were gathering in Paris for a previously planned foreign ministers meeting.
France, which has angered some allies by offering diplomatic recognition to Libya's opposition, said it is urgent to act against "barbarity" by Gadhafi's forces.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Libyans will face a "nightmare" if Gadhafi regains control, insisting that the world is "reaching a point of decision" on whether foreign forces will impose a no-fly zone.
The Arab League has backed a no-fly zone, and Hague told BBC Radio Monday that "in cases of great, overwhelming humanitarian need" one could be enforced without a U.N. Security Council resolution.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, speaking to The Associated Press, pointed to an "urgency" to act because violence against civilians was increasing in Libya. He said France was also working on a list of sanctions against Gadhafi's regime at the U.N. Security Council.
Other countries, including the United States, have been more cautious.
Hague, who is due to attend the foreign ministers meeting, also said he "wouldn't exclude" amending a ban on arms exports to Libya so that weapons could be shipped to the rebels - but that talks with allies on that are needed.
Hadid reported from Cairo. Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli contributed to this report.