TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s forces battled poorly armed rebels Tuesday for control of towns near the capital trying to create a buffer zone around his seat of power. The increasingly violent clashes threatened to transform the 15-day popular rebellion in Libya into a drawn-out civil war.
Amid the intensified fighting, the international community stepped up moves to isolate the longtime Libyan leader.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he ordered two ships into the Mediterranean, including the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, and he is sending 400 Marines to the vessel to replace some troops that left recently for Afghanistan.
Military leaders weighing a no-fly zone over Libya said it would be a complex task that would require taking out Gadhafi’s air defenses, and Russia’s top diplomat dismissed the idea as “superfluous” and said world powers should focus on sanctions.
“If they attack us, we are ready,” he told Sky News, adding that the Gadhafis are ready to implement reforms.
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his 41-year rule, Gadhafi’s regime has launched the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of uprising against authoritarian rulers in the Middle East. Gadhafi has already lost control of the eastern half of the country but still holds Tripoli and other nearby cities.
An exact death toll has been difficult to obtain in the chaos, but a medical committee in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising began on Feb. 15, said at least 228 people had been killed, including 30 unidentified bodies, and 1,932 wounded.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress that the U.S. must lead an international response to the crisis, including expanding already tough financial and travel sanctions against Gadhafi, his family and confidants and possibly imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war. The stakes are high,” she said.
Gadhafi’s regime has retaken at least two towns and threatened a third, while rebels repulsed attacks on three other key areas — Misrata to the east, Zawiya to the west, and the mountain town of Zintan to the south of the capital.
One of those retaken was the strategic mountain town of Gharyan, the largest in the Nafusa Mountains, which overlooks Tripoli, a resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation. The town fell after dark Friday in a surprise attack, and the government troops detained officers who defected to the rebels and drew up lists of wanted protesters and started searching for them, the resident added.
Gadhafi supporters also have said they were in control of the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli, which has seemed to go back and forth between the two camps in the past week.
But witnesses in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the capital, said rebels shouted “Allahu akbar (God is great) for our victory,” and carried an air force colonel who had just defected after six hours of overnight gunbattles failed to dislodge anti-Gadhafi forces who control the city.