Rebel forces opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi have won a strategic victory by defeating government forces who tried to wrest back control of a key oil port 500 miles east of Tripoli.
In a day-long battle that began just after dawn on March 2, several hundred pro-Qaddafi forces supported by artillery and war planes attacked a small contingent of oppositionists in Brega, where the country's second largest petroleum facility is located.
News of the attack brought out citizen militias from the nearby cities of Benghazi and Ajdabiya, who arrived with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and antitank weapons. After losing ground all morning, the opposition fighters regained the control they have had since last week and drove the Qadaffi loyalists back to an area near the sea.
At least six people were confirmed dead and 16 injured, but those numbers were expected to rise.
The attack on Brega was the first major attempt by government loyalists to win back control of the large chunk of eastern Libya now in opposition hands.
The defeat for Qaddafi, who has been the target of a nationwide rebellion since February 15, came as he warned Western governments against military interference, saying foreign troops who enter the country "will be entering hell and drown in blood."
In a three-hour speech to supporters in the capitol, Tripoli, Qaddafi also denied that Libyans have risen up in the tens of thousands against his regime or that his security forces have killed many hundreds of them for doing so:
"The world is talking about thousands of protesters who were shot dead during peaceful demonstrations. There was not one demonstration. Here, the international media and foreign ambassadors are present," Qaddafi said. "There was not any demonstration in Benghazi, Al Bayda or Darnah. Protesters did not go out on demonstrations. There were no demonstrations at all."
He vowed to fight on "until the last man and woman," saying, "We will defend Libya from the north to the south."
Meanwhile, the AP quoted witnesses in Tripoli who said pro-Qaddafi militiamen on March 2 launched raids and picked up people who participated in antigovernment protests after identifying them in photos and video.
One resident told the news agency that dozens of people were arrested from their homes in dawn raids, including her two brothers.
In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the eastern stronghold of the rebellion, a self-declared "interim government council" formed by the opposition called on foreign nations to carry out air strikes on non-Libyan African mercenaries that Qaddafi has used in his militias to put down the uprising.
U.S. Debates No-Fly Zone
The United States is moving naval and air forces closer to Libyan shores and has called for Qaddafi to give up power immediately.
But today the Pentagon downplayed talk about military options -- including a "no-fly zone" that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said would mean attacking Qaddafi's government.
Speaking to a congressional committee, Gates called for an end to "loose talk" about steps that would amount to an act of war, saying that a no-fly zone would "begin with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses."
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told the same committee that the Pentagon has not confirmed media reports of Libyan aircraft attacking rebel areas.
Neither he nor Gates said explicitly whether they support or oppose such an operation.
Asked about Gates' comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "The fact that the no-fly zone idea is complex does not mean it's not on the table."
"We are actively considering a variety of options. We have not ruled any options out. We selected a number of very tough options that include the sanctions I mentioned earlier, and the actions we've taken in concert with our international partners. Other options remain on the table," Carney said.
London has said that a no-fly zone did not necessarily require UN approval. Russia appears more skeptical. France's newly appointed foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has ruled out military action against Qaddafi's regime without a clear UN mandate.
Juppe said NATO intervention in Libya could be "extremely counterproductive" in terms of Arab public opinion.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issued a similar warning in Berlin, saying, "A no-fly zone is no theoretical affair. Rather, it poses very serious practical challenges. It would mean that it would have to be implemented, militarily. That in itself is a very serious matter and therefore, a discussion about it without the United Nations is unthinkable."
Humanitarian Crisis On The Borders
The chaos and violence in Libya has triggered an exodus of some 180,000 people, many of whom were foreign workers who have fled the country and gathered on the borders with Tunisia and Egypt.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said around 77,000 people have crossed in Egypt, and a similar number into Tunisia, and 30,000 more are waiting at the western border.
The director of operations for the International Organization for Migration, Mohammed Abdiker, said the scale of the crisis "cannot be underestimated."
In Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called for Qaddafi's immediate resignation and said the EU has increased the amount of aid money it is sending.
"As you know we have swiftly allocated an initial sum of three millions euros, but in the light of humanitarian needs we will increase this immediately to 10 million euros. At this stage we are providing medical and food aid, shelter, and other necessities to refugees at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders," Barroso said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain has begun an airlift to help Egyptians stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border get back home. The British planes, departing from Djerba, Tunisia, will help evacuate up to 8,800 Egyptian migrants to Cairo.
France also announced an airlift and naval operation coordinated with the European Union. Large airliners and a French Navy ship were heading to the region to evacuate at least 5,000 Egyptian refugees.
The brutal suppression of protests by Qaddafi and forces loyal to him today prompted the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to announce that he will open an enquiry into possible crimes in Libya.
The office of Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he would name those targeted on March 3.
On March 1, the UN General Assembly backed a recommendation from the UN Human Rights Council to remove Libya from membership on the council because of human rights violations by Qaddafi's regime.
The chaos in the North African country, which has the continent's largest proven oil reserves, has also sent oil prices soaring over fears that the unrest will spread.
On Wednesday, oil prices rose near $102 per barrel, the highest since September, 2008.
Written by Heather Maher with agency reports.