Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi forces used tanks, rockets and airstrikes Tuesday to mount a fierce counterattack on the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, according to witness reports.

By nightfall, the opposition's hold on the city had weakened considerably. A government spokesman claimed that Gadhafi loyalists had retaken the city, but residents said the main square remained in rebel hands.

One witness, speaking to The Associated Press by phone, said Gadhafi's tanks and fighting vehicles were roaming the city, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, and firing randomly at homes.

A resident of a nearby town said people who have fled from Zawiyah say government forces were shelling residential areas, with many dead and wounded.

Zawiyah is the closest city to the capital, Tripoli. The nearby rebel-held town of Misrata was also said to be under siege by pro-government forces.

Libyan forces have upper hand

Reports emanating from several other areas of the country suggest that government forces appear to have the momentum — at least for now.

Air power imbalance


Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the Libya national council, says rebels will strike a deal with Moammar Gadhafi if he leaves within three days. ((Associated Press))

Pro-Gadhafi forces have increasingly relied on air power to stem a rebel advance moving westward to Tripoli. The increasing use of warplanes underlines the vulnerability of the rebel forces, who do not have any such air power.

World powers are therefore contemplating the imposition of a so-called no-fly zone over Libya to deny Gadhafi that edge.

British and French officials said the no-fly resolution was being drawn up as a contingency and it has not been decided whether to put it before the UN Security Council, where Russia holds veto power and has rejected such a move.

Western officials have said a no-fly zone does not require a UN mandate, but they would prefer to have one.

Libyan warplanes launched at least five new airstrikes Tuesday near rebel positions in the  eastern oil port of Ras Lanuf, keeping up a counter-offensive to prevent the opposition from advancing toward Gadhafi's stronghold in Tripoli.

At least 26 people were injured, some of them seriously, in the clashes in Ras Lanuf.

Libyan state television broadcast pictures of captured soldiers and reporting they had been brainwashed, the CBC's Margaret Evans reported.

NATO on Monday decided to boost surveillance flights over Libya, part of contingency planning for possible military intervention in Libya beyond humanitarian efforts.

There were reports Tuesday that pro-Gadhafi forces had prevented thousands of refugees from crossing to Tunisia and had forced them back to Tripoli.

Meanwhile, another Canadian Armed Forces plane has left Tripoli. Ten Canadians were on board, along with other evacuees from Britain, Australia, Romania, and other countries.

Government denies Gadhafi ouster deal

The renewed offensives come amid conflicting reports about the short-term future of Gadhafi. Rebel leaders gave differing accounts on whether they offered to overlook the Libyan leader's alleged crimes if he cedes control of the country.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of the Libyan national council, the political voice of the rebels, told Agence France-Presse and Al-Jazeera Television early on Tuesday that Gadhafi would not be prosecuted if he relinquished the leadership.

"If he leaves Libya immediately, during 72 hours, and stops the bombardment, we as Libyans will step back from pursuing him for crimes," he told Al Jazeera. 


Airstrikes by pro-Gadhafi forces were reported in Ras Lanuf. There were also reports of heavy fighting in Zawiyah. ((CBC))

But council spokesman Jala al-Gallal said there is no such deal and Gadhafi would have to answer for his alleged crimes.

"So far there has not been any contact between the regime and the revolutionaries in any way," he told a news conference.

The CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, reporting from the capital of Tripoli, said government officials there also played down reports of the deal.

"There seems to be an emboldened mood in the pro-Gadhafi camp," she said.

'Leaves you scratching your head'

The CBC's Nahlah Ayed, reporting from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said the rebel council denied there was disagreement among rebel leaders, despite the contradictions.

"So it kind of leaves you scratching your head," she said.

"Did they misspeak? Was this a political ... misstep of some kind and now this is kind of damage control? Or is there a rift between the rebels. [It's] very difficult to determine here at the moment."


An anti-Gadhafi rebel carrying a rocket-propelled grenade watches an airstrike in the eastern city of Ras Lanuf. ((Reuters))

The reported deal doesn't sit well with many of Benghazi's citizens, said Ayed.

Gadhafi himself showed up late Tuesday at a Tripoli hotel where many foreign journalists are staying. But after staying an hour, he left without answering any questions.

The rebellion against Gadhafi's authoritarian regime began in mid-February in Benghazi, which has become the focal point of the uprising and the headquarters of the national council.

"They just cannot imagine that after 42 years, with the kind of rule that he's had here, he could simply walk away with any kind of money that they feel is theirs," she said.

Residents of the city also told Ayed about how their loved ones had been imprisoned for years without the benefit of a legal process and tortured.

"Because just about everybody we've talked to has been touched by what they call the brutality of this regime."

With files from CBC's Nahlah Ayed, Adrienne Arsenault and The Associated Press