Libya – Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town Wednesday and were close to taking a second, making new inroads in beating back a rebel advance toward the capital Tripoli. Western powers kept up the pressure to force Gadhafi out with new airstrikes to weaken his military, hints that they may arm the opposition and intense negotiations behind the scenes to find a country to give haven to Libya's leader of more than 40 years.
Airstrikes have neutralized Gadhafi's air force and pounded his army, but those ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organized than the opposition. The rebels, with few weapons more powerful than rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, can attack targets 3 to 4 miles (5 to 6 kilometers) away, but the loyalists' heavy weapons have a range of 12 miles (20 kilometers).
That disparity was obvious as government forces pushed back rebels who just two days earlier had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and a bastion of support for the longtime leader. Under heavy shelling, rebels retreated from Bin Jawwad on Tuesday and from the oil port of Ras Lanouf on Wednesday.
Gadhafi's forces were shelling Brega, another important oil city to the east. A rebel soldier, Col. Abdullah Hadi, said he expected the loyalists to enter Brega by Wednesday night.
"I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us," Hadi said.
NATO planes flew over the zone where the heaviest fighting was under way earlier Wednesday and an Associated Press reporter at the scene heard explosions, but it was unclear whether any airstrikes hit the area. U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Clint Gebke, a spokesman for the NATO operation aboard the USS Mount Whitney, said he could not confirm any specific strikes but Western aircraft were engaging pro-Gadhafi forces in areas including Sirte and Misrata, the rebels' last significant holdout in western Libya.
The retreat Wednesday looked like a mad scramble: Pickup trucks, with mattresses and boxes tied on, driving east at 100 mph (160 kilometers per hour).
Many rebels regrouped east of Brega at the green, arching western gate of Ajdabiya, sharing water, dates and tuna sandwiches on a sandy, windswept plain next to two burned-out tanks and two burned-out cars from the airstrikes last week that drove Gadhafi's forces back. Three anti-aircraft guns mounted in back of pickup trucks pointed west down the road."There's something strange about the way he attacked us today," said Abdullah Abdel-Jalil, a 31-year-old ambulance driver. "The Grad rockets, the tanks, the quantity of it all, he's stronger than we thought. It's way too intense."
Dozens of civilians were seen heading north to Benghazi, and streets on the western side of Ajdabiya were deserted and silent. Among the rebels, the lack of air support was a common lament.
"We don't know why they're not here," said Moftah Mohammed, a 36-year-old rebel soldier. "Our forces are mainly on the side of the main road. We've heard Gadhafi's forces are pushing deep into the desert" in an attempt to head off rebel forces. "We don't want to be stuck in the middle of that."
Mohammed, however, thought loyalist forces would stop pursuing the rebels. "Gadhafi aims to take back Ras Lanouf and Brega because he's running out of oil. I think he'll stop there," he said.
As Gadhafi's forces push rebels toward their de-facto capital Benghazi, some 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Brega, pressure is growing for NATO members and other supporters of the air campaign to do more.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain believes a legal loophole could allow nations to supply weapons to Libya's rebels — but stressed the U.K. has not decided whether it will offer assistance to the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that Washington also believes it would be legal to give the rebels weapons. As to whether the country would do so, President Barack Obama told NBC, "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in."
France, one of the strongest backers of international intervention in Libya, believes arming rebels would require a new U.N. resolution; the existing one includes an arms embargo. But Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, "We are ready to discuss it with our partners."
Under the U.N. resolution authorizing necessary measures to protect civilians, nations supplying weapons would need to be satisfied they would be used only to defend civilians — not to take the offensive to Gadhafi's forces.
Cameron's spokesman Steve Field said British and other diplomats were involved in negotiations with the rebel leadership in Benghazi partly to gauge if the opposition would be trustworthy allies.
"We are in the process of talking to those people and learning more about their intentions," Field told reporters.
NATO officials and diplomats said the alliance had given no consideration to arming the rebels. Any alliance involvement would require support from all 28 members, a difficult task, and an alliance official who could not be named under standing regulations said NATO "wouldn't even consider doing anything else" without a new U.N. resolution.
NATO is in the process of taking over control of the airstrikes, which began as a U.S.-led operation. Diplomats said they have given approval for the commander of the NATO operation, Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover on Thursday.
Another possibility to help the rebels is to ramp up airstrikes, which so far have been conducted with the stated goal of helping civilians. But even the airstrikes conducted so far have been criticized by some world powers.
Chinese President Hu Jintao called for an immediate cease-fire and admonished French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an ardent proponent of the bombing campaign, at a diplomatic meeting in Beijing. Hu called for peaceful efforts to restore stability, expressed China's concern that Libya may end up divided and said force would complicate a negotiated settlement.
Diplomats were attempting to persuade Gadhafi to leave without military force.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said negotiations on securing Gadhafi's exit were being conducted with "absolute discretion" and that there were options on the table that hadn't yet been formalized.
"What is indispensable is that there be countries that are willing to welcome Gadhafi and his family, obviously to end this situation which otherwise could go on for some time," he said.
But the Italian diplomat insisted immunity for Gadhafi was not an option. "We cannot promise him a 'safe-conduct' pass," he stressed.
Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa visited Tunisia briefly, but there was no word if this was linked to the secret talks.
Uganda appeared to be the first country to publicly offer Gadhafi refuge. The spokesman for Uganda's president, Tamale Mirundi, told the AP on Wednesday that he would be welcome there. Uganda, however, is a signatory to the statute that created the International Criminal Court, whose chief prosecutor is deciding whether to seek an indictment against Gadhafi.
The group Human Rights Watch said Gadhafi's forces laid land mines in the eastern outskirts of Adjabiya, an area they held from March 17 until Saturday, when airstrikes drove them west.
The group cited the electricity director for eastern Libya, Abdal Minam al-Shanti, who said two anti-personnel mines detonated when a truck ran over them, but no one was hurt. Al-Shanti said a civil defense team found and disarmed 24 anti-vehicle mines and an estimated 30 to 40 plastic anti-personnel mines in what Human Rights Watch described as a heavily traveled area.
"Libya should immediately stop using anti-personnel mines, which most of the world banned years ago," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
France — which was the first nation to formally recognize the Libyan rebels — confirmed that a diplomatic presence was established in Benghazi on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe stressed that Antoine Sivan will not be a formal ambassador but rather a diplomat there to establish relations with the Council in Benghazi.
Britain, meanwhile, said it expelled five Libyan diplomats loyal to Gadhafi, including the country's military attache, because of their intimidation of opposition supporters and their potential threat to the U.K.'s national security.