TOBRUK, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s forces overwhelmed rebels in the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya, hammering them with airstrikes, missiles, tanks and artillery Tuesday in an assault that sent residents fleeing and appeared to open the way for an all-out government offensive on the opposition’s main stronghold in the east, Benghazi.
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In desperation, rebels sent up two antiquated warplanes that struck a government ship bombarding Ajdabiya from the Mediterranean. But as tanks rolled into the city from two directions and rockets relentlessly pounded houses and shops, the ragtag opposition fighters’ defenses appeared to break down.
Only 10 days ago, the rebellion was poised to march on Tripoli, the capital, and had appeared capable of sweeping Gadhafi out after 41 years in power, but the regime’s better armed and organized military has reversed the tide. Efforts led by France and Britain to create a no-fly zone to protect the rebels have gone nowhere, and some rebels lashed out at the West for failing to come to their aid.
“This is a madman, a butcher,” one rebel fighter said of Gadhafi, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone from Ajdabiya as explosions were heard in the background. “It’s indiscriminate fire.”
“The world is sleeping,” he said. “They (the West) drunk of Gadhafi’s oil and now they won’t stand against him. They didn’t give us a no-fly zone.”
Residents of the city of 140,000 streamed out, fleeing toward Benghazi, 140 miles (200 kilometers) northeast. But warplanes and artillery were striking roads in and out of Ajdabiya, several witnesses and fighters said. Some reported private cars had been hit, but the reports could not be independently confirmed. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Gadhafi’s regime.
Ajdabiya, 480 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, is the gateway to the long stretch of eastern Libya that has been in the control of the opposition since early on in the month-long uprising. With its fall, regime forces would be able to bombard Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the de facto capital of the opposition, by air, sea and land.
The opposition once had a seemingly unshakable hold on the eastern half of the country and control of several cities in the west. Gadhafi has reclaimed much of that territory, including all but one western city.
Gadhafi warned rebels: “There are only two possibilities: Surrender or run away.”
He said he was not like the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders who fell after anti-government protests. “I’m very different from them,” he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “People are on my side and give me strength.”
Late Tuesday, addressing selected supporters in Tripoli, Gadhafi called the rebels “rats” and blasted Western nations. “They want Libyan oil,” he said.
During his appearance, a crowd watching on a TV projection on a wall in Benghazi shouted curses and threw shoes at the image, in video broadcast live by Al-Jazeera satellite TV.
As before, Gadhafi played down the scope of the conflict in his country. “They said thousands have died, but only 150 have died,” he said.
Libyan state television aired calls for the opposition to stop fighting, apparently hoping to sway populations in the east away from support of the rebels. “Those who are asking you to put down your arms want peace for you, so please help them and stop shedding blood,” the broadcaster said. “Libya is for everyone and by everyone. So let God’s word be the highest and the word of evil be the lowest.”
Europe and the United States, meanwhile, were tossing back and forth the question of whether to impose a no-fly zone that the opposition has pleaded for.
On Tuesday, top diplomats from some of the world’s biggest powers deferred to the U.N. Security Council to take action against Libya, as France and Britain failed to win support for a no-fly zone in the face of German opposition and U.S. reluctance. France said the Group of Eight agreed that a new U.N. resolution should be adopted by week’s end with measures to help Libyan rebels.
A U.N. resolution introduced Tuesday includes no-fly provisions. It also calls for increased enforcement of an arms embargo and freezing more Libyan assets, according to U.N. diplomats said who spoke on condition of anonymity because the text has not been released. One diplomat said the Security Council will be looking to see whether members of the Arab League, which is pressing for the no-fly zone, are ready to seriously participate in the establishment and operation of a zone.
The U.S. added sanctions Tuesday, banning business with Libya’s foreign minister and 16 companies it owns or controls.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested that the fighting in Libya had already outpaced diplomatic efforts.
“If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn’t have happened,” Juppe told Europe-1 radio.
Earlier Tuesday, Gadhafi’s forces recaptured the last rebel-held city west of Tripoli. With the victory in Zwara, a seaside town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border, the only other significant opposition-held city in the western half of the country was Misrata – which for days has been under a punished blockade, its population running out of supplies.
“We are short on antibiotics and surgery supplies and disposable equipment,” a doctor said in Misrata, which is east of Tripoli and Libya’s third-largest city. “We feel so, so, isolated here. We are pleading with the international community to help us in this very difficult time.”
The doctor said naval ships in the Mediterranean port were blocking aid to Misrata. Another resident said water service was cut to many parts of town, and trucks that traditionally supply rooftop tanks weren’t able to enter the city. Townspeople were relying on poor quality home-dug wells normally used to irrigate gardens, he said.
The assault on Ajdabiya began in the morning with a heavy bombardment from warplanes and ships off shore and what rebels said were constant volleys of long-range Grad rockets. Opposition fighters had heavily fortified the western entrance to the city, expecting an attack from that direction, but when it came, they were surprised to find they had been flanked, with Gadhafi forces striking the southern entrance at the same time.
“Just now they hit a group of fighters. They are dead, wounded,” said rebel spokesman Ahmed al-Zwei, who was among a group of fighters at the western gate.
Mosques in the city blared calls from their minarets for residents to join the defense. Hundreds rushed in, but there weren’t enough weapons for all of them. “They don’t have the arms, but they have the will to fight,” said Lt. Col. Mohammed Saber, an army officer who defected to the uprising and spoke from the front.
At one point, two antiquated warplanes held by the rebels bombed warships off shore to try to stop their bombardment, Saber and another opposition activist said. The activist, who asked not to be named, said rebels procured a handful of “very old” warplanes weeks ago but did not want to use them, believing that Western powers, with Arab diplomatic support, would impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
Now, he said, the opposition would use the planes to bomb “oil wells and oil sites.”
Throughout the day, rockets and shelling rained down on residential neighborhoods, several rebels said. Before nightfall, tanks and armored personnel carriers punched into the city from the west and south, facing hit-and-run attacks by rebel fighters using assault rifles and anti-aircraft guns.
“Everybody is defending himself. I am a resident of this city. I am not going anywhere,” one fighter told AP. “We have been prisoners of war for 40 years. … We are civilians – we didn’t know how to fight before this war. We are learning how to fight now. Sooner or later we will kick out this madman.”
Libyan state television claimed the battle was already won. The report said Gadhafi’s troops were “completely in control of Ajdabiya and are cleansing it from armed gangs.”
In Tripoli, hundreds of Gadhafi supporters celebrated in central Green Sqaure, blaring revolutionary songs, waving green flags and shooting in the air.
Ajdabiya has been a key supply point for the rebellion, with ammunition and weapons depots. Until now, the Gadhafi forces’ offensive toward the east has battled over two oil ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and Ajdabiya is the first heavily populated city in the area they have tried to retake.
Its fall would set the stage for a regime march on Benghazi. It is a rebel bastion, but with opposition forces in disarray after Ajdabiya, it is unclear how strong the city’s defenses would be.
A Tuareg lieutenant from Mali who has fought for the Libyan government since 1993 said the government wants to retake Benghazi, but doesn’t want to attack the city itself. He says the government will try to convince residents to force militants out into the open desert.
“The idea is to surround Benghazi but to leave one exit open for the rebels,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal.