Heavy loyalist fire pushed Libyan rebels back almost to the town of Ajdabiyah on Saturday, after the insurgents had pressed westward halfway to the oil refinery town of Brega, 80km away.
As diplomatic efforts gathered pace for a truce, the Red Cross brought much-needed relief to the besieged rebel-held port city of Misrata, the scene of fighting for more than 40 days.
A huge blast rocked Ajdabiyah on Saturday, said an AFP correspondent on its outskirts, adding that residents said it was probably a Nato air strike.
A large pall of smoke was seen billowing over the key road junction town that had seen heavy exchanges between retreating rebels and advancing loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi just hours before.
Dozens of cars and military vehicles were seen pouring east out of Ajdabiyah towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, as a helicopter bearing a rebel flag headed west towards the front line despite a no-fly zone.
Advancing government forces shelled the retreating rebels west of Ajdabiyah, an AFP correspondent there heard.
At least 10 loud explosions rocked the town’s outskirts in a major setback for the rebels.
In a sign of the rebels’ growing military confidence, for the first time since Wednesday they even allowed foreign journalists to advance toward Brega to a point where a supply base had been established behind the short-lived front lines.
But they too were forced to beat a hasty retreat as the government forces stepped up the shelling. Dozens of cars and military vehicles streamed eastward using both carriageways of the main highway.
Anti-aircraft guns and rocket-launchers were seen taking up defensive positions at intervals along the highway to cover the retreat, and rebel fighters launched a salvo of Grad rockets from Ajdabiyah’s eastern outskirts.
A source in the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi said four people, including two children, had been killed in Misrata and 10 wounded on Friday.
“Gaddafi forces continue to fire blindly on the houses of Misrata,” the rebel source said. “Today, four martyrs fell, including two children under age four.”
Earlier, two captured Gaddafi loyalists were brought back from the front. Excited rebel fighters chanting “Allahu Akhbar (God is greatest),” gathered round taking photographs with their mobile telephones.
One of the government fighters was seated in the back of a four-wheel-drive and seemed in good health.
But the other, who lay in the back of pickup truck, had blood all over his arm and appeared quite badly wounded. He covered his face with his hands as the convoy pulled up.
Meanwhile, a buoyant Gaddafi made his first television appearance for five days on Saturday.
Gaddafi smiled and pumped his fists in the air as he received an ecstatic welcome at a school in Tripoli, where women ululated and pupils chanted anti-western slogans. One woman cried with emotion as he passed.
Gaddafi, wearing his trademark brown robes and dark glasses, was last seen on television on April 4.
He looked confident and relaxed, confirming the impression among analysts that his administration has emerged from a period of paralysis and is hunkering down for a long campaign.
The rebels said they intended to take Brega on Saturday and some had penetrated the outskirts.
“God willing, we will take Brega today. We already have people up there and we will try to do it today,” said rebel Captain Hakim Muazzib from a petrol station on the desert road between the two towns. There were 10 pick-up trucks waiting in the petrol station, carrying rocket launchers and machineguns.
British jets have hit tanks around the cities of Misrata and Ajdabiyah, the Ministry of Defence said.
Royal Air Force planes struck seven tanks on Friday, the MoD said, two in the Ajdabiyah area and five around Misrata.
An oil tanker carrying 80,000 tonnes of crude that the rebels need to finance their uprising entered the Suez Canal on Saturday after leaving rebel-held east Libya. Traders say it is headed for China with the first cargo the rebels have sold.
In other developments, the Red Cross ferried enough emergency aid for 300 war wounded to the embattled town of Misrata as it fanned out across western Libya for the first time.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a ship it had chartered docked in Misrata with medicines and surgical supplies as well as five ICRC staff.
“We are sending the ship to support Misrata’s main hospital by delivering enough medical supplies to treat 300 patients with weapon injuries on the spot,” said the head of an ICRC team in Tripoli, Jean-Michel Monod.
Heavy fighting broke in Misrata on Friday, with four civilians killed, as loyalist forces sought to dislodge rebels, insurgent sources and an AFP correspondent said.
And rebels there criticised Nato for what they said was its lack of response to a relentless pounding by Gaddafi forces for more than a month.
On the diplomatic front, European Union foreign ministers will meet a member of the Transitional National Council next week, despite a lack of consensus in the bloc on how to deal with the opposition group.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued the invitation on Tuesday to the meeting in Luxembourg, which will be the first between the Libyan opposition and the EU as a whole.
And visiting delegation of African leaders seeking to mediate a ceasefire in Libya will be shown “due respect” by rebels fighting Gaddafi’s forces, an official in their stronghold in Benghazi said.
But the insurgents will not accept any deal involving Gaddafi or his family staying in power, spo-kesman Mustafa Gheriani said.
“We know exactly what we want. If they (the African leaders) think there could be a transitional period with Gaddafi or his sons, they need to go to (the besieged Libyan city of) Misrata where women and children are being violated and tell that to them,” he said.
South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders from a high-level African Union panel have been given Nato permission to meet Gaddafi in Tripoli, and the rebel chiefs in Benghazi on Sunday and Monday, according to the South African foreign ministry.
Italy will decide early next week whether to join in shelling Gaddafi’s troops, but is likely to remain in a supporting role, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa told La Republica daily.
Poland refuses to join Nato’s military campaign against Gaddafi because of Europe’s “hypocrisy” and inconsistency over human rights, Prime Minister Donald Tusk was quoted as saying.
All five Russian journalists abducted on Friday by Libyan rebels have been released, Komsomolskaya Pravda and the NTV news channel said on their websites.
A Libyan opposition group asked the United States for immediate access to frozen assets of Gaddafi to pay for humanitarian needs in rebel-held areas. Agencies