Libyan rebels say they will regroup and bring in heavy weapons after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi pounded opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to stop the rebels’ rapid advance toward the capital.
Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, told The Associated Press today that his forces need reinforcements from the east after yesterday’s setback.
Libyan rebels were not visible today west of the front line town Ras Lanuf, on the road towards the hamlet of Bin Jawad where they suffered heavy casualties, an AFP reporter said.
From a position about 5km from Bin Jawad, a warplane could be seen circling overhead, then heading back towards the west, where forces loyal to Gaddafi have their strongholds.
Residents in Ras Lanuf have begun leaving, fearing an attack.
A dozen or so cars could be seen driving out of town in one 10-minute interval, heading east along the Mediterranean coast to the town of Brega, which the rebels captured last week.
According to casualty lists posted at hospitals, seven rebels were killed and more than 50 wounded in the battle for Bin Jawad yesterday after which rebel fighters said they had retreated to Ras Lanuf, a key oil town.
Yesterday’s fighting appeared to signal the start of a new phase in the conflict, with Gaddafi’s regime unleashing its air power on the rebel force trying to oust the ruler of 41 years.
Resorting to heavy use of air attacks signalled the regime’s concern that it needed to check the advance of the rebel force toward Sirte – Gaddafi’s hometown and stronghold.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Gaddafi’s foreign minister agreed to let a “humanitarian assessment” team visit Tripoli and he named a special envoy to deal with the regime, former Jordanian foreign minister Abdelilah al-Khatib to undertake “urgent consultations” with the Tripoli government.
“People are injured and dying and need help immediately,” said UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos.
“I call on the authorities to provide access without delay to allow aid workers to help save lives.”
The uprising against Gaddafi, which began on February 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
Libya appears to be sliding toward a civil war that could drag out for weeks, or even months.
Hundreds if not thousands of people have died since Libya’s uprising began. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has come under mounting pressure to arm rebels facing an emboldened and regrouping military, amid charges Washington missed recent chances to oust Libya’s strongman.
Obama has insisted that all options, including military action, remain on the table.
But with the administration cautioning that a decision on a no-fly zone was still far off, US lawmakers and former officials appeared coalesced around the likelihood that supplying weapons to the outgunned rebels was a way forward.
“I assume that a lot of weapons are going to find their way there (to rebels in Libya) from one means or another over the course of the next weeks,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, from Obama’s Democratic Party.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan declined to confirm any potential plans to send weapons to opposition forces, saying that “all options are being considered”.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported US defence planners are preparing a range of land, sea and air military options in Libya in case Washington and its allies decide to intervene.
Citing unnamed administration officials, the newspaper said just simple use of signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace could muddle Libyan government communications with military units.
Administration officials said preparations for such an operation were under way, the report said.