- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) — Libyan government tanks and rockets pounded rebel forces into a panicked full retreat Tuesday after an hourslong, back-and-forth battle that highlighted the superior might of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, even hobbled by international airstrikes.

No such strikes were launched during the fighting in Bin Jawwad, where rebels attempting to march on Col. Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte ended up turning around and fleeing east under overcast skies. Some fleeing rebels shouted, “Sarkozy, where are you?” — a reference to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the strongest supporters of international airstrikes.

World leaders in London, meanwhile, debated how far they should go to force an end to Col. Gadhafi’s 41-year autocratic rule. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the world must speak with a single voice to ensure that the North African country “belongs not to a dictator, but to its people.”

Rockets and tank fire sent the Libyan rebels in a panicked scramble away from the front lines. The opposition was able to bring up truck-mounted rocket launchers of their own and return fire, but they went into full retreat after government shelling resumed.

The two sides traded salvos over the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, now pockmarked with shrapnel and small-arms fire. Rockets and artillery shells crashed thunderously as plumes of smoke erupted in the town. The steady drum of heavy machine-gun fire and the pop of small arms could be heard above the din as people less than a mile outside the village scaled mounds of dirt to watch the fighting.

“This today is a loss, but hopefully we’ll get it back,” said Mohammed Bujildein, a 27-year-old from Darna. He was gnawing on a loaf of bread in a pickup truck with a mounted anti-aircraft, waiting to fill up from an abandoned gas tanker truck on the eastern side of Ras Lanouf.

Even in Ras Lanouf, roughly 25 miles east of Bin Jawwad, there appeared to be shelling — there were thuds in the distance and black smoke rising from buildings. Some rebels pushed farther east.

“If they keep shelling like this, we’ll need airstrikes,” Mr. Bujildein said. “It makes it easier to go to Sirte. If there’s air cover, we’ll be in Sirte tomorrow evening.”

Rebel forces were on the brink of defeat by government forces before a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and campaign of strikes by the United States and its allies helped them regain lost territory. It is unclear, however, if international support exists to deepen the air campaign and attack Col. Gadhafi’s heavy weaponry enough to help the rebels make further advances. Some countries, including Russia, contend the airstrikes already have gone beyond the U.N. mandate of protecting civilians from attacks by Gadhafi forces.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice said Tuesday there are plenty of “nonmilitary means at our disposal” to oust the Libyan leader.

France, which has been at the forefront of the international campaign, struck a more forceful tone.

“We, the French and English, we consider that we must obtain more” than the end of shooting at civilians, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on France-Inter radio. He also said Libyan politicians could be targeted since they gave orders to the military.

In London, Mrs. Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Arab League, the African Union and about 40 foreign ministers began discussing the future of Libya and how to ratchet up pressure on Col. Gadhafi.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said several nations planned to put forward a deal that would propose a cease-fire, exile for Col. Gadhafi and a framework for talks between Libya’s tribal leaders and opposition figures on the country’s future.

In signs of emerging ties between the opposition and the international community, Mrs. Clinton met with Libyan opposition envoy Mahmoud Jibril in London, and a senior Obama administration official said the United States  soon would send an envoy to Libya to meet with rebel leaders.

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