Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, have launched a large-scale offensive, beginning with new air strikes on the eastern oil-producing towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega.
Rebel forces were reported to be retreating from Ras Lanuf, the site of a key oil installation. They lost control of the pockets of residential parts of the town that they had been clinging to by Friday morning, sources told Al Jazeera.
Yet they retained control of the strategically-important oil refineries in the town's port, Ibrahim Said, the deputy director of the hospital in nearby Ajdabiya, told the Associated Press.
Ibrahim al-Alwani, a rebel fighter, said he and comrades still in Ras Lanuf had seen government troops in the town centre.
"I saw maybe 150 men and three tanks," he told Reuters on Friday morning. "I can hear clashes."
The government troops had landed by boat near the Fadeel hotel in Ras Lanuf on Friday, a spokesperson told Reuters.
"Four boats carrying 40 to 50 men each landed there. We are fighting them right now," Mohammed al-Mughrabi said.
Foreign journalists faced significant hurdles on getting information out of Ras Lanuf, but Libyan state television aired footage on Friday of people fleeing the city and of pro-Gaddafi searching houses for weapons.
Pro- and anti-government forces are locked in intense fighting for control of several other cities and towns along the coastline to the east of Tripoli, including Bin Jawad, as well as in Az Zawiyah to the west of the capital.
In an interview with the Reuters, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam said the time had come for full scale military action against the rebels.
"There is no more chance for negotiations with rebels fighting the Libyan government," he said on Thursday.
He said the military would never give up - but would fight in Libya and die in Libya.
In a press conference late on Thursday, Khalid al-Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister, reiterated that it was "clear" that most anti-government protesters and fighters were members of al-Qaeda.
|Flashpoint cities in Libya
The bodies of four rebels killed in the fighting were brought to a hospital in Ajdabiyah on Thursday, along with 36 wounded, Ibrahim Saeed, a doctor at the hospital.
There were additional deaths in the frontline town of Brega. Gaddafi’s forces were preventing ambulances from going to Ras Lanuf, and doctors predicted the death toll to be much higher.
"At the moment it's 10 dead and dozens injured from Thursday's fighting, and that's likely to rise significantly. We believe there are many more bodies in the area," Doctor Salem Langhi, a doctor in Brega, said.
"Ambulances have not been allowed to go there to Ras Lanuf, the army is blocking the road."
Major offensive underway
Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley, reporting from Ras Lanuf, said many had wondered in recent days about "why Gaddafi [had] not employed his full forces".
"Today we've seen those forces in action," he said.
"We were caught right in the middle as his forces out-flanked, and then out-bombed and out-shot the opposition forces. There was sustained aerial and artillery and mortar bombardment, followed by a flanking movement.
"There have been a number of casualties. We've seen trucks going along the highway, but that's being shelled by Gaddafi forces all the way along. I counted ... 50 shells falling.
"We've seen trucks with wounded lying in the back of pick-ups, and I think the casualty toll is going to be high. We also saw and heard extensive ground fire coming from the beach [in the north], we think there's been a flanking movement from the beach.
"But it seems like the major offensive that we thought was going to happen is underway now."
Birtley reported that while many opposition fighters had now left the town, a "hard core" was going back to fight.
He said the attack showed the "professionalism of Gaddafi's troops, and it shows that ... he's hitting back."
Engineers at the town's oil facilities have been burning off poisonous gas in case of a direct hit on the refinery, rebels say.
"We've been defeated. They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf," a rebel fighter, dressed in military fatigues who gave his name as Osama, told the AFP news agency.
"The town of Ras Lanuf has been purged of armed gangs and the green flags have been hoisted over all [government] buildings," Libyan state television reported on Thursday evening. The report said that government forces were "advancing on Benghazi".
Hundreds of people attended the midday prayers in the town of Ajdabiya on Friday, despite warnings from Libyan state television that pro-Gaddafi forces were about to attack, a local journalist told Al Jazeera.
Rebel confidence falters
|Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Libya's leader, has
warned that the government will be launching
a full-scale military offensive [Reuters]
Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid just reported from Benghazi, the rebel stronghold which has become a support base for the many rebels traveling to the front to fight the offensive by pro-Gaddafi forces.
Hundreds of people protested in support of the rebel forces on Friday as she spoke, and optimism remains high in Benghazi that the city could resist any attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces.
Yet with fighting Az Zawayah, Misurata, Ras Lanuf and Brega, the frontline is advancing eastward, towards Benghazi. The loss of Ras Lanuf risks striking a particularly high blow to the rebels’ moral, she said.
"The Gaddafi forces are certainly trying to keep or to regain control of all the oil facilities around the country," she said, explaining that for his forces to retake Tobruk, Libya's eastern-most oil port, they would have to pass through Benghazi, she said.
The rebels readily admit that they don’t have the firepower to counter the pro-Gaddafi forces, she added.
No-fly zone debated
A European Union crisis summit on Libya opened in Brussels on Friday with countries divided over a British-French push to prepare for military action and formal recognition of Gaddafi's opposition.
David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, went into the talks urging partners to extend formal recognition to Libya's opposition while working on contingency planning for military action.
Sarkozy met with leaders of the Libyan opposition on Thursday evening, in what is the first high-level meeting between a foreign head of government and the rebels' Benghazi-based National Council.
"One of the main aims of the formation of the National Council is for the opposition to have a point of contact with the international community," Abdel-Hamid reported.
Faced with the aggressive assault by Gaddafi's forces, the Libyan opposition is frustrated that NATO is still debating the imposition of a no-fly zone, she said.
The French and British leaders issued a letter late on Thursday night saying that they wanted action to be taken against Gaddafi's government, including an arms embargo, an expansion of the sanctions already in place.
"Colonel Gaddafi must go, his regime is illegitimate, what he is doing to his people is completely unacceptable," Cameron told Al Jazeera ahead of the meeting.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, added her voice to the calls for Gaddafi to step down on Friday.
The battles are raging as rebels pile on pressure on the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to cripple Gaddafi's air force.
There will be no concrete discussion of the no-fly zone in the EU meeting, however, Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher reported from Brussels.
While several world powers have backed such a measure, the logistics are yet to be worked out with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, saying such a move should be driven by the United Nations and not the United States.
On Thursday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, saying that "further planning will be required" if a no-fly zone were to be enforced, under the UN's mandate.
Unconfirmed reports from the French government suggest Sarkozy supports targeted airstrikes against strategic targets in Tripoli, though EU has no capacity to order military action.
"Nicolas Sarkozy will be working behind the scenes saying if this goes to the United Nations, we expect Europe to speak with one voice," Fisher said.
Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on Thursday warned that Libya was in a state of "civil war", and appealed for aid workers to be given greater access to the country.
James Clapper, the American director of national intelligence, gave a controversial analysis of the Libyan crisis, predicting that Gaddafi would be likely to retain control of at least part of the country in the long-term, given his superior weapons and manpower.
"Over time I think the regime will prevail," Clapper told the armed services committee on Thursday.
"With respect to the rebels in Libya, and whether or not they will succeed or not, I think frankly they're in for a tough row," he said.
Some senators called for Clapper to be fired because of the comments.
"Some of his analysis could prove to be accurate, but it should not have been made in such a public forum. If he felt the need to say what he did, then they should have moved into closed session," Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, said.
Tom Donilon, national security adviser to US president Barack Obama, said that Clapper's perspective on the situation in Libya was "static and one-dimensional" and that it left out the prospect that world powers may assist the opposition movement.
Amid such discussions, Gaddafi has launched his own diplomatic effort, sending emissaries to Brussels and Cairo.
Opposition forces vowed to continue fighting against Gaddafi, even if a no-fly zone was not imposed.
"If they implement a no-fly zone we will ask for other things. Even if they do not implement it, we will fight," Iman Bugaigis, a media officer with the rebel February 17 Coalition, told reporters in Benghazi.
"There is no return for us. This nation will not bear both of us. It is us or his (Gaddafi's) family. After what happened
in Zawiyah, how can we live with this person?" she said.