Libyan rebels beat off a new assault by Muammar Gaddafi's forces on the besieged western city of Misrata on Saturday, losing eight of their fighters in fierce street battles, the insurgents said.
As fighting raged on for the coastal town, where conditions are said to be desperate, a buoyant Gaddafi made his first television appearance for five days and his troops engaged rebels in more fighting on the eastern front of the civil war.
Rebel spokesman Mustafa Abdulrahman told Reuters by telephone that Saturday's fighting centred on the Nakl al-Theqeel road to Misrata port, where a Red Cross vessel brought in badly needed medical supplies earlier in the day.
Abdulrahman praised what he called a positive change from NATO, saying its aircraft carried out several air strikes on Gaddafi's besieging forces. Rebels have complained for days that NATO is too slow to respond to government attacks.
A Reuters correspondent on a government organised trip to Misrata described deserted streets in the city's south and said many buildings had been heavily shelled.
NATO warplanes struck one government position on Tripoli road, a main artery that cuts through to the city centre, two sites on the coastal road and another near the western gate to the city, which lies about 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli, Abdulrahman said.
A government official in southern Misrata said a NATO strike hit the outskirts. A Reuters reporter saw a plume of black smoke and a warplane sweeping across the sky.
The city, the lone major rebel outpost in the west of Libya, has been under siege by Gaddafi's forces for weeks. Five rebels were killed in another government assault on Friday.
Rebels say people are crammed five families to a house in the few safe districts to escape weeks of sniper, mortar and rocket fire. There are severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies and hospitals are overflowing.
Misrata, Libya's third largest city, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi in mid-February after a security crackdown snuffed out most peaceful protests in the west.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi smiled and pumped his fists in the air when he received an ecstatic welcome at a school, where women ululated and pupils chanted anti-western slogans. One woman wept with emotion as he passed.
Gaddafi, wearing his trademark brown robes and dark glasses, was last seen on television on April 4.
He looked confident and relaxed, confirming the impression among analysts that his administration has emerged from a period of paralysis and is hunkering down for a long campaign.
Inconclusive see-saw battles have been fought along the desert road between Brega and Ajdabiyah for over a week after Gaddafi's military pushed back a rebel advance in the east, the war's only active front.
Western generals are increasingly pessimistic that the military stalemate can be broken despite NATO air attacks on Gaddafi's armour.
On the eastern front, Gaddafi's forces shelled the western outskirts of Ajdabiyah, launch point for rebel attacks towards the Mediterranean oil port of Brega.
A Reuters correspondent heard artillery impacts and machinegun fire for around 30 minutes, coming from the western boundary of the town, the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km (90 miles) to the northeast.
On the eastern front, rebels had said they had intended to take Brega and some had penetrated the outskirts. But their assault seemed to have petered out by nightfall, following a familiar pattern.
Abdullah Mutalib, 27, a rebel lying in a hospital bed in Ajdabiyah with a bullet wound in his side, told Reuters: "Some of us got inside Brega to the university, some got to the outskirts. Then we came under rocket fire."
Western officials have acknowledged that their air power will not be enough to help the rag-tag rebels overthrow Gaddafi by force and they are now emphasising a political solution.
But a rebel spokesman rejected a negotiated outcome.
"There is no other solution than the military solution, because this dictator's language is annihilation, and people who speak this language only understand this language," spokesman Ahmad Bani told al Jazeera television.
An oil tanker carrying 80,000 tonnes of crude that the rebels need to finance their uprising entered the Suez Canal on Saturday after leaving rebel-held east Libya. Traders say it is heading for China with the first cargo the rebels have sold.
NATO air strikes, with the stated aim of protecting civilians against Gaddafi's army under a UN mandate, have created rather than broken a stalemate with neither side now strong enough to land a knockout blow.
Analysts predict a long, low-level conflict possibly leading to partition between east and west in the sprawling country.