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The official said Chris Stevens, former U.S. envoy to Tripoli, will travel to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the coming days to establish better ties with groups seeking to oust the longtime Libyan leader. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, stressed that the move doesn’t constitute formal recognition of the opposition.

In an open letter to the international community, meanwhile, Col. Gadhafi called for a halt to the “monstrous assault” on Libya and maintained that that the rebels were supported by the al Qaeda terrorist network.

“What is happening now is providing a cover for al Qaeda through airstrikes and missiles to enable al Qaeda to control North Africa and turn it into a new Afghanistan,” he said, accusing the international community of carrying out genocide against the Libyans.

The Libyan state Jamahiriya News Agency (Jana) quoted a military official as saying that airstrikes of the “crusader imperialist assault” targeted civilian and military targets in Misrata, Tripoli, Zlitan, Mazdah and Watayah.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, said the United Kingdom had received reports that it was Col. Gadhafi who was pounding Misrata, the main rebel holdout in the west, and relentlessly targeting civilians.

Gadhafi is using snipers to shoot them down and let them bleed to death in the street. He has cut off food, water and electricity to starve them into submission,” Mr. Cameron said.

Rida al-Montasser, an activist in Misrata, confirmed heavy shelling on two streets in the city but said rebels remain in control. Three people were killed in Misrata on Monday, and several others were wounded.

The rebels remain woefully outgunned by Col. Gadhafi’s forces, though they do show some improvements since their seige of Ajdabiya a week ago. They have more ammunition and heavy weapons that they’ve captured from government forces, and they are showing better efforts at using them. But it is still unclear how they can take the stronghold of Sirte without further aggressive international air support.

The rebel advance reached Nawfaliyah, some 60 miles from Sirte, on Monday, but the next day they were driven back to the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, a few dozen miles to the east.

In a scene reminiscent of the rebels’ rout last week, panicked volunteers jumped into their pickup trucks and attempted to speed away from the bombardment, kicking up dust clouds and choking the narrow coastal highway in a mad scramble of vehicles.

Sirte is dominated by members of the Libyan leader’s Gadhadhfa tribe and was used as a second capital by Col. Gadhafi. Its loss would be a symbolic blow and would open the way to the capital, Tripoli.

“This is their last defensive line. They will do everything to protect it,” explained rebel fighter Twate Monsuri, 26. “It’s not Gadhafi attacking us; he’s just defending himself now.”

Gadhafi forces continued to besiege Misrata, where residents reported shelling by government tanks of residential areas, with three people killed.

The U.S. Navy reported that two of its aircraft and a guided missile destroyer attacked a number of Libyan coast guard vessels, rendering them inoperable, in the port of Misrata. It said the Libyan vessels had been “firing indiscriminately” at merchant ships.

One of Libya’s top officials, meanwhile, abruptly made a “private visit” to Tunisia late Monday, according to the official news agency there.

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