|Rebel fighters are on the retreat as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi attempt to retake territories [AFP]
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have launched a major attack on the rebel-held city of Misurata, killing at least five people, a medical source said.
"Very heavy bombardments are taking place now from three sides. They are using heavy weapons including tanks and artillery ... They have yet to enter the town," a Misurata resident, called Mohammed, told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
A second resident, Saadin, confirmed the account and said the attack began at 7:00am (0500 GMT).
Misurata residents told the Associated Press that pro-Gaddafi troops also cut communications. Water cuts were reported a day earlier in the city of 300,000 people, 200km east of the capital Tripoli.
The attacks came as Gaddafi's men prepared to push further towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the country's east.
Tony Birtley, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Benghazi, said there was no fighting in the city on Wednesday. He reported "a certain amount of apprehension" among the rebels, but added, "there is strong will and a resolve to resist Gaddafi's forces".
"This is a city of over 800, 000 people. They have nailed their colours to the mast in a very clear and decisive way," Birtley said.
The Libyan armed forces meanwhile issued a statement, read on state television. that described the offensive as a humanitarian operation to save the people of "beloved Benhgazi" and said troops would not take revenge on rebels if they surrendered.
"Advise your duped sons to hand over their weapons to the armed forces or the People's Leadership and they will be covered by an amnesty requested by the Commander (Gaddafi), which will be valid for any person who hands over his weapon to the armed forces and refrains from resistance and subversion," it said.
"[The people of Benghazi] know there is no going away from here. If Gaddafi's forces come through here then they are in trouble, so that will, I think, buoy them to fight," Birtley reported.
"A lot of people here have got weapons. Even though they don't have the huge numbers of heavy weapons, they do have enough weapons to carry on street fighting and cause a problem," our correspondent added.
Meanwhile, fighting raged for the control of Ajdabiya, a town that pro-Gaddafi forces would have to capture before marching on to Benghazi.
Libyan state television said government troops were "in total control" of the town, a claim disputed by the rebels.
Ajdabiya's fall would open the way for Gaddafi's forces to advance farther into the long stretch of eastern Libya that has been in the control of the opposition throughout the month-long uprising against the Libyan leader's more than 41-year-old rule.
Gaddafi's forces, who have halted and reversed last month's rebel advance along the east coast, also appeared to be gaining control of the nearby oil town of Brega.
Loosely organised anti-Gaddafi fighters with little military training have been pushed back more than 160km in a week-long counter-offensive by Gaddafi's professional army.
"We have lost Brega completely. We could not face Gaddafi's forces," said a rebel in Ajdabiya on Tuesday, who identified himself only as Nasser.
Gaddafi's planes, tanks and artillery have had few problems picking off lightly armed rebels in the open desert, but have faced fierce resistance in towns that offer some cover for the rebels.
Soliman Bouchuiguir, president of the Libyan League for Human Rights, said in Geneva that if Gaddafi's forces attacked Benghazi, there would be "a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda".
Gaddafi appeared on television on Tuesday, denouncing the international community's talk of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya. A draft UN Security Council resolution was distributed at a closed-door meeting to address the issue.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries meeting in Paris meanwhile fell short of agreeingto press the UN Security Council to back a no-fly zone to protect Libyan cities from aerial bombardment.
|Military analyst tells Al Jazeera rebels need to resort to 'guerrilla warfare' to repel Gaddafi's forces
Instead, the G8 said Libyans have a right to democracy and warned Gaddafi he faced "dire consequences" if he ignored his people's rights. The G8 urged the Security Council to increase pressure on Gaddafi, including further economic measures.
As the diplomatic debate continues, there is now a real possibility that by the time world powers agree on a response to the conflict, Gaddafi's forces will already have won.
NATO has set three conditions for it to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya; regional support, proof its help is needed and a Security Council resolution.
An Arab League call for a no-fly zone satisfies the first condition, but with access to most of Libya barred by Gaddafi's security forces, hard evidence that NATO intervention is needed to avert atrocities or a humanitarian disaster is scarce.
Kyung-wha Kang, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Gaddafi's government had "chosen to attack civilians with massive, indiscriminate force".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies