REUTERS - Muammar Gaddafi's warplanes and helicopters bombed and strafed a Libyan rebel-held town on Tuesday while France failed to convince world powers to push for a no-fly zone to protect civilians.
Lightly armed rebel forces are struggling to hold back the relentless eastward advance of Libyan government troops along the bleak desert coast, slowly strangling the month-old uprising against Gaddafi's 41 years of autocratic rule.
Jets launched air strikes on the western gate of Ajdabiyah, the last major town before the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, witnesses said. the town itself, which lies on a strategic road junction, was strafed by a helicopter.
Government tactics during the counter-offensive have followed a pattern. Bombing raids are followed by artillery barrage, then by an armoured ground assault, suggesting Ajdabiyah was being softened up for an attack.
But while an advance on Ajdabiyah could not be ruled out, fighting still raged for the third day in the oil terminal town of Brega, along the coast southwest of Ajdabiyah, rebels said.
In a foretaste of the ferocity and chaos of urban fighting which could envelop Benghazi, a city of 670,000, Brega, with a population of just 4,300, has changed hands several times with rebels fighting a guerrilla rearguard amongst the rubble.
"In Brega, it is still advance and retreat, we are not in control and they are not either," said rebel fighter Hussein al-Wami.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries meeting in Paris stopped short of agreeing to press the United Nations Security Council to back a no-fly zone to protect Libyan cities from aerial bombardment.
Instead, the G8 said Libyans have a right to democracy and warned Gaddafi he faced "dire consequences" if he ignores his people's rights. The G8 urged the Security Council to increase pressure on Gaddafi, including further economic measures.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain have led calls to impose a no-fly zone. But Gaddafi dismissed the plan.
"We will fight and win. A situation of that type will only serve to unite the Libyan people," he told the Italian daily Il Giornale. Sarkozy, he said, has "a mental disorder".
At the G8, Russia and Germany argued a no-fly zone could be counterproductive, while the United States, which would likely have to shoulder much of the burden of policing Libyan skies, is still cautious over the idea.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi, tighten sanctions. There is common ground here in the G8 and while not every nation sees eye to eye on issues such as the no-fly zone there is a common appetite to increase the pressure on Gaddafi."
As the diplomatic debate drags on, there is now a very real possibility that by the time world powers agree on a response to the conflict, Gaddafi's forces may already have won.
NATO has set three conditions for it to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya; regional support, proof its help is needed and a Security Council resolution.
An Arab League call for such a zone satisfies the first condition, even though the African Union has opposed the idea and is sending a delegation including South African President Jacob Zuma to Libya within days.
With access to many parts of Libya barred by Gaddafi's security forces, hard evidence that NATO intervention is needed to avert atrocities or a humanitarian disaster is still scarce.
But rebels warned of a "bloodbath" if heavily armed government forces broke through to Benghazi.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said Gaddafi's government had "chosen to attack civilians with massive, indiscriminate force".
In Misrata, the last major city in western Libya still in rebel hands, residents said water had been cut off to the city of 300,000 people, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
"The situation is quiet but we expect everything at any moment," a resident called Mohammad told Reuters by telephone.
Pro-Gaddafi forces took control of the small town of Zuwarah, west of Tripoli, late on Monday after sending in tanks.
A resident in Zuwarah said that on Tuesday security forces were trying to round up anyone suspected of links to the rebels.
"They have lists of names and are looking for the rebels. They also took a number of rebels as hostages," said the resident who did not want to be named.