Rebels bombarded by planes and tanks in vicious fight for Zawiyah

Cameron insists 'We can't stand aside' if Gaddafi continues to brutalise his people, while US weighs up military options

Troops loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi stepped up their counter-offensive against opposition forces last night, exercising a level of brutality not yet seen in the conflict.

Pro-Gaddafi troops used tanks and aircraft to bombard the rebel-held town of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital Tripoli, vowing that it was a "final battle". There were mixed reports about whether Zawiyah had fallen, but witnesses reported that the town centre had been "flattened" by the onslaught.

"Fighting is still going on now. Gaddafi's forces are using tanks. There are also sporadic air strikes," said one resident. "The situation here is very bad. Many buildings have been destroyed, including mosques. About 40 to 50 tanks are taking part in the bombardment but they could not reach the centre of the town, which is still in the control of the revolutionaries."

The renewed battle for Zawiyah came as defectors from Libya's regular forces finally appeared to be stepping forward to take over from enthusiastic but inexperienced rebels fighting daily battles with well-armed pro-Gaddafi troops in eastern Libya. At a checkpoint at Brega, just east of the front line, there was evidence of trained soldiers, dressed in smart fatigues and combat gear, in a place normally patrolled by trigger-happy rebel fighters, some handling weapons for the first time.

Four battalions comprising several thousand soldiers have moved from Libya's second city, Benghazi, towards the front in the past two days, said Jelel Suleiman, a marine. "The army is in charge," he said, a claim repeated by several soldiers. "The army is in front, the volunteers are at the back."

Anti-regime forces will hope that the soldiers' decision to mobilise in support of the rebels could be a critical turning point. They had struggled to defend their hard-won gains in eastern Libya, which last night was under rebel control as far as Ras Lanuf, the site of the country's largest oil refinery.

Meanwhile, the British and French governments continued to push for a no-fly zone over Libya.

The battle for Zawiyah was part of a big counter-attack against the resistance movement. In recent days, Gaddafi has sent in artillery, tanks and warplanes against untrained volunteers, some of whom do not even have rifles.

The rebels initially claimed some victories and pushed forward, buoyed by little more than high spirits. In sharp contrast, the morale among loyalist forces is said to be low. Their commanders are understood to have executed 20 officers in Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's stronghold, for refusing to fight the revolutionaries last week. But the rebels' morale took a battering, too, when they suffered a heavy defeat in Bin Jawad, a town close to Sirte. Nevertheless, there is now a growing recognition among opposition commanders that their fighters are badly in need of leadership and a strategy.

Major-General Ahmed el-Ghatrani, an army defector now serving with the opposition, said his soldiers were preparing to join the fight. "It is time to go to work now," he added. "The armed forces will advance now to lead the fight from Bin Jawad to Sirte. From there, the youth will continue."

After last month's uprising, Gaddafi's troops in the east laid down their rifles and some returned home, while others joined the volunteers to fight.

As the international community looks on with growing alarm, the West appears to be inching closer to imposing a no-fly zone in the hope of preventing aerial strikes on Libyan civilians. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said yesterday that such a measure was both a "realistic" and "practical possibility". But he downplayed the likelihood of imminent action, saying it would require "a clear legal basis, a demonstrable need and strong international support and broad support in the region, and a readiness to participate in it".

David Cameron said he discussed how to tighten the screw on the Gaddafi regime in a phone conversation with President Obama. "We have got to prepare for what we might have to do if he goes on brutalising his own people," the Prime Minister told BBC1's The One Show last night. "I don't think we can stand aside and let that happen."

China and Russia, which have a veto in the UN Security Council, have said that they oppose interference in Libya's internal affairs, while America says it is still weighing up the military options. General James Amos, the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, warned yesterday that Colonel Gaddafi's fleet of attack helicopters, which are much harder to target than aeroplanes, posed a much graver threat to civilians than fighter jets and would render a no-fly zone only partially effective.

The Libyan leader has shown little sign of weakening, despite reports in the Arab media that he might be prepared to step down in exchange for certain guarantees. Opposition leaders based in Benghazi denied holding talks with the regime. But Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former justice minister who heads the opposition's National Council, said that if Gaddafi stepped down within 72 hours, his side would not seek to bring him to justice. Others in the coalition insisted Gaddafi must answer for his crimes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence