'This will all be over in 48 hours': Gaddafi's son vows to crush revolution

As the regime issues its final ultimatums, and a bloody endgame looms, Kim Sengupta joins the rebels' retreat to Benghazi

The shackles were being torn off after four decades of dictatorship, beckoning a bright and brave new beginning. But a month on, amid fierce strife and dreadful suffering, and with no help from the international community, Libya's revolution looks set to be heading for a bloody and tragic end.

There is still flickering hope that defeat can be averted. That the West will act at last to stop Muammar Gaddafi's brutal military offensive, that the much-forecast major mutiny among his forces will indeed take place. But, in what is left of "Free Libya", there is now resignation that the future so full of promise has faded away.

There is also a rising sense of fear of the retribution which will follow. Families are separating as those most in danger start to leave, others staying on but vowing that they would rather die fighting than face execution or go through years of torture and incarceration.

Meanwhile, the endgame is being played out. Fighting continued yesterday around Ajdabiya, the last town in rebel hands before Benghazi, where the protest movement had set up its provisional government. By late yesterday afternoon, regime troops were seen moving south across the desert, to gain access to the Egyptian border and encircle the eastern parts of the country hitherto outside their control.

Last night a Libyan army spokesman appeared on state television, warning Benghazi's residents to leave rebel-held areas by 22:00 GMT. The text on the screen claimed that the army was coming "to support you and to cleanse your city from armed gangs. It urges you to keep out by midnight [local time] of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located."

As losses have mounted for the rebels, bitterness has increased towards what is perceived here as callous Western indifference with repeated questions about the failure to impose a "no-fly zone". Yesterday Saif al-Islam, the son of Col Gaddafi, declared any international move on that issue was immaterial and Benghazi was doomed. "It will all be over in 48 hours," he said in a television interview.

Listening to the threat, repeatedly broadcast on the state-controlled television channel, led to cries of defiance, breaking the gloomy silence, in a Benghazi café. "We'll hang you in Tripoli yet for all the crimes you have committed against the Libyan people," shouted Yusuf Istarzi, a schoolteacher turned fighter. "The sons of the monster are even worse than he is." His companion, Jawad Abdulahi, shook his head. "Yes, but he will hang a lot of us if he manages to get here. He is right, it is too late for a 'no-fly zone'. We need air strikes, but will America and Europe do that? Or do a deal with him for oil? We must concentrate on defending ourselves."

The revolutionary forces, the Shabaab, had set up their defensive line at Zuwaytina, 10 kilometres east of Ajdabiya, from where they attempted to relieve groups of fighters trapped inside. The regime forces used tactics which had succeeded in the last week, shelling from air, land and sea, followed by tanks and armoured cars.

The rebel leadership in Benghazi had claimed that Col Gaddafi's troops, with their lines of supplies stretched, would be driven back out of Ajdabiya by street-fighting, with many of its residents taking up arms alongside the Shabaab. Like many assertions made by both the sides in this conflict, this proved to be illusory and the regime managed to keep the city surrounded. But there was severe violence inside the town with the regime's forces using, on a few occasions, tank rounds in built-up areas in response to rebel ambushes. With ambulances failing to get through the crossfire, many of the injured could not be taken away for treatment. When access was eventually gained to some areas, the numbers soon overwhelmed the limited facilities in the local hospital.

Patients were treated on corridor floors and in hallways. The seriously wounded from other battles during the last week had been sent on to Benghazi. But this proved difficult in Ajdabiya because the road out of the town had been blocked. Dr Ali Jamaan, who is working at the hospital, said: "We have had a few fatalities and there are a lot of injuries, trauma cases. We had always known we would have difficulties in coping if a lot of cases came in but the problem is that we cannot get them to where they would get the right treatment. This is now very critical, we have not got enough drugs and we have not got enough staff."

Rahim Ali Ajdah, one of the few taken to Benghazi for treatment, had been driving back into Ajdabiya from Zuwaytina to check his family was safe when his car was hit by automatic rifle fire. "There were some Gaddafi men at a checkpoint and they opened fire, I do not know why. I felt pain and knew that I have been hit. The doctors say I will be all right, but I am very worried about my family. We live in a neighbourhood which was bombed and people died."

Lying on the next bed, Mohamad Shawar described how two cars carrying seven fellow rebel fighters burst into flames in front of him. "It was a heavy calibre gun, all the men inside are dead. Our car was also hit, I managed to get away but then got shot in the leg. I hid in a house and then a kind elderly man smuggled me out of the town. We were not just fighting Gaddafi men. Some people from Ajdabiya joined them as well. They were pretending to be for the revolution and now they have changed sides because they think Gaddafi will win. I will be OK in a week and want to go back to fight. If there is nothing left to fight for, then I will leave the country."

In the first heady days of freedom, Benghazi's courthouse, the headquarters of the rebel movement, was full of political drawings. At the nearby media centre, young people held debates and met the international press. But most journalists have gone with the approach of Gaddafi's forces. There was a new water colour on one of the walls last night, of a man saying farewell to his wife and children. It was titled "The Exile".

More reporters go missing

The New York Times revealed that four of its journalists were missing in Libya, including Stephen Farrell, a videographer and reporter who was rescued by British commandoes in 2009 after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the paper's Pulitzer prize-winning Beirut bureau chief, Anthony Shadid.

It is only the latest instance of foreign journalists encountering peril while reporting on the conflict. Four BBC reporters were released by government security forces last week but only after being beaten and subjected to mock executions.A reporter from The Guardian, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, has also been freed after being detained by the Libyan authorities for two weeks. A correspondent for a Brazilian newspaper who was with him and was also detained was released a week ago. The editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, said: "We're delighted that Ghaith has been released and is safely out of Libya. We are grateful to all those who worked behind the scenes to help free him after his ordeal."

The plight of the four from The New York Times could complicate considerations by the White House of a UN resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya. "We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists," the paper's editor, Bill Keller, said.

David Usborne