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.

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