Pro-and anti-Gaddafi forces were on Thursday locked in fierce battles in several Libyan cities amid reports that strategic oil town of Zawiyah had been recaptured by government troops, as France became the first State to recognise the opposition national council which is seeking a no-fly zone over the country.
68-year-old Muammar Gaddafi's forces claimed that they had recaptured Zawiyah, 50 km west of the capital Tripoli, after an intense fighting. However, the rebels rejected the claim.
Witnesses were quoted as saying by media reports that Zawiyah was now under the control of forces loyal to Gaddafi, who has been in power for 41 years.
A resident who fled the city was quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera that "there was no one in the streets, the town is completely deserted, and there are snipers on the roofs."
Local residents said the city had been under sustained attack from pro-Gaddafi forces, aided by tanks and war planes, amid reports of intense fighting in another town Ras Lanuf, where an oil installation had gone up in flames.
Al-Jazeera said a steady volley of mortar and rocket fire covered the sky with dark smoke in Ras Lanuf. "Pro-Gaddafi forces unleash a savage counter-offensive against the town of Ras Lanuf."
Fresh air strikes and shelling were also reported behind rebel lines in Ras Lanuf.
The fighting raged as rebels piled up pressure on the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
"It (imposition of a no-fly zone) has to be immediate action," Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the interim government in eastern Benghazi city, told CNN.
"The longer the situation carries on, the more blood is shed. That's the message that we want to send to the international community. They have to live up to their responsibility with regards to this," he was quoted as saying.
Abdul-Jalil, the ex-Justice Minister, was among those who broke with the regime after the uprising against Gaddafi's 41-year rule began on February 15. He now leads the opposition's National Transitional Council, a 31-member group representing most regions in Libya.
The Libyan government has offered a reward of USD 400,000 for the capture of Abdul-Jalil.
France has become the first country to recognise Abdul-Jalil's national council and will send an envoy to Benghazi, media reports said.
NATO spy planes have mounted a 24-hour air space surveillance over Libya, as British Defence Secretary Liam Fox hinted that a no-fly zone could be enforced without wiping the North African nation's air defences.
Three Boeing E-3 Sentry aircraft were airborne over the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast keeping track of all Libyan fighters, NATO officials said.
The surveillance was put into operation around noon today and came as Libyan air force fighters carried out the heaviest bombing of rebel positions at Ras Lanuf.
Cities like Brega, Bin Jawad and Adjdabiya also witnessed heavy fighting as pro-Gaddafi forces intensified their counter-assault on the rebel forces.
In growing signs that a US and NATO combine military action may be imminent, the British Defence Secretary said that a no-fly zone over Libya was possible without hitting at Libyan air force bases and air defence systems.
Gaddafi also launched a diplomatic offensive, dispatching envoys overseas.
High-ranking members of the Libyan leader's inner circle were sent to Cairo, Brussels, Lisbon and Malta to approach government officials.
Accusing the West of conspiring to usurp Libya's oil resources, a defiant Gaddafi yesterday warned that any move to clamp a 'no-fly' zone would be strongly resisted by the people, as his forces pounded opposition positions.
Ignoring the ultimatum by the rebels asking him to step down within 72 hours, Gaddafi, in an interview to Turkish TV, said a no-fly zone would show the true intention of the Americans and their European allies to "colonise Libya and seize its oil wealth".
"If they take such a decision (to impose a no-fly zone), it will be useful for Libya, because the Libyan people will see the truth, that what they want is to take control of Libya and to steal their oil," Gaddafi said. "Then the Libyan people will take up arms against them."
Meanwhile, BBC reported that Gaddafi's security forces detained and beat up its news team which was trying to reach Zawiyah.
Members of the three-man team were beaten with fists, knees and rifles, hooded and subjected to mock executions by Libyan troops and secret police, it said. The three were detained on Monday and held for 21 hours, but have now flown out of Libya.
According to UN estimates, over 1,000 people have been killed since Libya's uprising began in mid-February.
More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia.