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Pro-Gadhafi forces fight rebels in 2 cities

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — International pressure on Moammar Gadhafi to end a crackdown on opponents escalated Monday as his loyalists fought rebels holding the two cities closest to the capital and his warplanes bombed an ammunition depot in the east. The U.S. moved naval and air forces closer to Libya and said all options were open, including patrols of the North African nation’s skies to protect its citizens from their ruler.

France said it would fly aid to the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The European Union imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions, following the lead of the U.S. and the U.N. The EU was also considering the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya. And the U.S. and Europe were freezing billions in Libya’s foreign assets.

“Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “No option is off the table. That of course includes a no-fly zone,” she added. British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers: “We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets” to deal with Gadhafi’s regime.

Gadhafi, who in the past two weeks has launched the most brutal crackdown of any Arab regime facing a wave of popular uprisings, laughed off a question from ABC News about whether he would step down as the Obama administration demands.

“My people love me. They would die for me,” he said. ABC reported that Gadhafi invited the United Nations or any other organization to Libya on a fact-finding mission.

Gadhafi’s remarks were met with derision in Washington. “It sounds, just frankly, delusional,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice. She added that Gadhafi’s behavior, including laughing on camera in TV interviews amid the chaos, “underscores how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality.”

The uprising that began Feb. 15 has posed the most serious challenge to Gadhafi in his more than four decades in power. His bloody crackdown has left hundreds, and perhaps thousands, dead. But clashes appear to have eased considerably in the past few days after planeloads of foreign journalists arrived in the capital at the government’s invitation.

The two sides are entrenched, and the direction the uprising takes next could depend on which can hold out longest. Gadhafi is dug in in Tripoli and nearby cities, backed by his elite security forces and militiamen who are generally better armed than the military. His opponents, holding the east and much of the country’s oil infrastructure, also control pockets in western Libya near Tripoli. They are backed by mutinous army units, but those forces appear to have limited supplies of ammunition and weapons.

Gadhafi opponents have moved to consolidate their hold in the east, centered on Benghazi — Libya’s second- largest city, where the uprising began. Politicians there on Sunday set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Gadhafi’s regime.

The opposition is backed by numerous units of the military in the east that joined the uprising, and they hold several bases and Benghazi’s airport. But so far, the units do not appear to have melded into a unified fighting force. Gadhafi long kept the military weak, fearing a challenge to his rule, so many units are plagued by shortages of supplies and ammunition.

On Monday, pro-Gadhafi forces retook control of the western border crossings with Tunisia that had fallen under opposition control and they bombed an ammunition depot in the rebel-held east, residents in the area said. The Libyan Defense Ministry denied the bombing.

Regime forces also moved to tighten their ring around two opposition-controlled cities closest to the capital Tripoli — Zawiya and Misrata — where the two sides are locked in standoffs.

An Associated Press reporter saw a large, pro-Gadhafi force massed on the western edge of Zawiya, some 30 miles west of Tripoli, with about a dozen armored vehicles along with tanks and jeeps mounted with anti-aircraft guns. An officer said they were from the elite Khamis Brigade, named after one of Gadhafi’s sons who commands it. U.S. diplomats have said the brigade is the best-equipped force in Libya.

He said Gadhafi called Zawiya’s influential tribal leader Mohammed al-Maktouf and warned him that if the rebels don’t leave the city’s main square by early Tuesday, they will be hit by warplanes. “We are expecting a major battle,” the resident said, added that the rebels killed eight soldiers and mercenaries Monday.

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