Government forces attacked rebels with rockets, tanks and warplanes on Libya’s western and eastern fronts on Tuesday, intensifying their offensive to crush the revolt against ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

In besieged Zawiyah, the closest rebel-held city to Tripoli, trapped residents cowered from the onslaught.

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“Fighting is still going on now.

Gaddafi’s forces are using tanks. There are also sporadic air strikes... They could not reach the center of the town, which is still in the control of the revolutionaries,” a resident said by phone. “Many buildings have been destroyed, including mosques. About 40 to 50 tanks are taking part in the bombardment.”

In the east, much of which is under rebel control, warplanes bombed rebel positions around the oil port of Ras Lanuf.

Rebel euphoria seemed to have dimmed.

“People are dying out there. Gaddafi’s forces have rockets and tanks,” Abdel Salem Muhammad, 21, told Reuters near Ras Lanuf.

“You see this?” he said of his light machine gun. “This is no good.”

The rebel leadership said that if Gaddafi stepped down within 72 hours, it would not seek to bring him to justice.

Earlier, the rebels said they had rejected an offer from the Libyan leader to negotiate his surrender of power. The government called such reports “absolute nonsense.”

Rising casualties and the threats of hunger and a refugee crisis increased pressure on foreign governments to act, but they struggled to agree on a strategy for dealing with the turmoil, many fearful of moving from sanctions alone to military action.

Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East

Britain and France led a drive at the UN for a no-fly zone that would prevent Gaddafi from unleashing air raids or moving reinforcements by air. The Arab League and several Gulf states have also called for such a step.

“It is unacceptable that Col.

Gaddafi unleashes so much violence on his own people, and we are all gravely concerned about what would happen if he were to try to do that on an even greater basis,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Russia and China, which have veto power in the UN Security Council, are cool toward the idea of a no-fly zone.

The US government, whose interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan enraged many of the world’s Muslims, said it was weighing up military options and that action should be taken only with international backing.

Critics at home and abroad have accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to bring about Gaddafi’s downfall.

“Whatever you do, the risks are great,” said Stephen Grand, an expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “But you can’t just walk into a civil war and expect to stop it... Still, doing nothing is not a viable alternative.”

Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council, told a news conference in the rebel base of Benghazi: “We will complete our victory when we are afforded a no-fly zone. If there was also action to stop him [Gaddafi] from recruiting mercenaries, his end would come within hours.”

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said any implementation of a no-fly zone would involve a large military operation, including strikes on Libyan air defenses.

But Douglas Barrie, military aerospace expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said destroying air defenses was not a prerequisite.

“There’s no hard-and-fast rule in the establishment of a no-fly zone that you have to go in and take out all of your opponent’s air defenses,” he said. “It’s desirable in that you would minimize the risks to your own air assets, but you don’t have to do it. It comes down to how much risk you are willing to accept.”

Rebels still controlled the central square of Zawiyah, 50 km. west of Tripoli, on Tuesday and were using megaphones to urge residents to defend their positions, a Ghanaian worker who fled the town on Tuesday said.

A Libyan man who lives abroad said he had spoken by phone on Tuesday to a friend in Zawiyah who described desperate scenes.

“Many buildings are completely destroyed, including hospitals, electricity lines and generators,” he said. “People cannot run away, it’s cordoned off. They cannot flee.

All those who can fight are fighting, including teenagers.

Children and women are being hidden.”

Air strikes hit at rebels behind the no-man’s-land between the coastal towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, 550 km. east of Tripoli and the site of oil terminals.

One strike smashed a house in a residential area of Ras Lanuf, gouging a big hole in the ground floor.

The rebel army – a rag-tag outfit largely made up of young volunteers and military defectors – made swift gains in the first week of the uprising that saw them take control of the east and challenge the government near Tripoli. But their momentum appears to have stalled as Gaddafi’s troops have pushed back with heavy weapons.

Rebels said government forces had dug in their tanks near Bin Jawad while rebels retreated to Ras Lanuf. The two towns are about 60 km.

apart on the strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean Sea.

The emerging front line divides the country along ancient regional lines – Cyrenaica in the west and Tripolitania in the east – with key oil facilities stuck in the middle.

Gaddafi has denounced the rebels as drug-addled youths or al-Qaida-backed terrorists, and said he will die in Libya rather than surrender.

The eastern city of Benghazi looks to have firmly thrown off control by Gaddafi, but the leader looks to have managed to clamp down on unrest in Tripoli and is besieging and battling to cement his control in nearby towns.

“If he leaves Libya immediately, during 72 hours, and stops the bombardment, we as Libyans will step back from pursuing him for crimes,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council, told Al-Jazeera.

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