Gadhafi forces barrage rebels in east and west

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — After dramatic successes over the past weeks, Libya’s rebel movement appears to have hit a wall of overwhelming power from loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi. Pro-regime forces halted their drive on Tripoli with a heavy barrage of rockets in the east and threatened Tuesday to recapture the closest rebel-held city to the capital in the west.

If Zawiya, on Tripoli’s doorstep, is ultimately retaken, the contours of a stalemate would emerge — with Libya divided between a largely loyalist west and a rebel east .

A spokesman for the opposition’s newly created Interim Governing Council in Benghazi, meanwhile, said a man who claimed to represent Gadhafi made contact with the council to discuss terms for the leader of four decades to step down. Mustafa Gheriani told The Associated Press the council could not be certain whether the man was acting on his own initiative or did in fact represent Gadhafi.

“But our position is clear: No negotiations with the Gadhafi regime,” said Gheriani, who declined to say when contact was made or reveal the identity of the purported envoy.

Libyan state television denied that Gadhafi had sent an envoy to talk to the rebels.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that neither Gadhafi nor rebel forces appeared currently able to establish supremacy. “At the moment ... it seems that either side lacks the immediate power to overthrow the other,” he said.

Later Tuesday, Gadhafi made a surprise appearance at a hotel hosting foreign correspondents in Tripoli, arriving just before midnight. He raised his fist in the air as he walked from his car to the hotel, then he went into a room separated by curtains for exclusive interviews with a Turkish and a French television station.

He stayed about an hour, then he left without speaking to the AP and other news organizations waiting outside.

Zawiya, a city of 200,000, was sealed off under a fifth day of a destructive siege, with conflicting reports of who was in control. A brigade led by one of Gadhafi’s sons, Khamis, is believed to be leading the assault, shelling neighborhoods with tank and artillery fire from the outskirts and trying to push troops in to the city’s central Martyrs Square where rebels had set up camp.

The battle is far from over and could be drawn out into a long and bloody civil war. The latest round of fighting on opposite ends of Libya’s Mediterranean coast once again revealed the weakness and disorganization of both sides.

Even if it ends with Zawiya’s recapture, the long siege of the city underlined the rebels’ tenacity and the struggles of even a reportedly elite force like the Khamis Brigades to crush them.

At the same time, Gadhafi’s regime has been using its air power advantage more each day to check a rebel advance west toward Tripoli on the main coastal highway leading out of the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The increasing use of air power underlines the vulnerability of the rebel forces as they attempt to march across open, desert terrain — but it also could prompt world powers to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to deny Gadhafi that edge.

In the east, Gadhafi’s forces succeeded over the weekend in blunting the rebels’ attempt to march toward Tripoli, repelling them from Bin Jawwad, a small town 375 miles east of the capital, and driving them back to the oil port of Ras Lanouf, further east.

On Tuesday, troops fired barrages of rockets at a rebel contingent that tried to move out from Ras Lanouf. At least 26 wounded were rushed to the hospital in the town, some of them with legs lost and other serious injuries, according to doctors there.

Earlier in the day, warplanes launched at least five new airstrikes near rebel positions in Ras Lanouf, one hitting a two-story house in a residential area, causing some damage. None of the strikes appeared to cause casualties, suggesting they were intended to intimidate the fighters, according to an Associated Press reporter who saw the strikes. The anti-regime forces were not taking any chances and were spreading out deep inside the desert around the area in small groups.

The rebels seem to have reached a point of their campaign where they need to figure out how to organize resupply lines and avoid becoming easy targets for warplanes in their march across the open desert region with little cover. The extent of their westward reach is a checkpoint about six miles west of Ras Lanouf.

In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the main rebel stronghold in east, there was an unusual attack after weeks of quiet that followed the rebel capture of the territory. Assailants in a car tossed a grenade at a hotel where foreign journalists were staying, but there were no casualties and only some light damage to windows, an opposition official said.

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