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The recapture of Zawiya would be a significant victory for Gadhafi, easing a threat just outside his main bastion in the capital. If his forces can hold it, it would free up troops to deploy against other rebel-held areas.

The fall of Zawiya to anti-Gadhafi residents early on in the uprising that began Feb. 15 had illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the opposition. The uprising swept over the entire eastern half of the country, breaking it out of the regime’s control, and seized Zawiya and several other cities and towns in the northwestern pocket of the country where Gadhafi’s regime was confined.

But the government could be regaining some balance and its capability to lash back with powerful force.

The battle is far from over and could be drawn out into a long and bloody civil war. The latest round of fighting on opposite ends of Libya’s Mediterranean coast once again revealed the weakness and disorganization of both sides.

Even if it ends with Zawiya’s recapture, the long siege of the city underlined the rebels’ tenacity and the struggles of even a reportedly elite force like the Khamis Brigades to crush them.

At the same time, Gadhafi’s regime has been using its air power advantage more each day to check a rebel advance west toward Tripoli on the main coastal highway leading out of the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The increasing use of air power underlines the vulnerability of the rebel forces as they attempt to march across open, desert terrain — but it also could prompt world powers to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to deny Gadhafi that edge.

In the east, Gadhafi’s forces succeeded over the weekend in blunting the rebels’ attempt to march toward Tripoli, repelling them from Bin Jawwad, a small town 375 miles (600 kilometers) east of the capital, and driving them back to the oil port of Ras Lanouf, further east.

On Tuesday, troops fired barrages of rockets at a rebel contingent that tried to move out from Ras Lanouf. At least 26 wounded were rushed to the hospital in the town, some of them with legs lost and other serious injuries, according to doctors there.

“I was hit in the arm and leg, my friend was wounded in the stomach,” Momen Mohammad, 31, said while lying in a hospital bed.

Earlier in the day, warplanes launched at least five new airstrikes near rebel position in Ras Lanouf, one hitting a two-story house in a residential area, causing some damage. None of the strikes appeared to cause casualties, suggesting they were intended to intimidate the fighters, according to an Associated Press reporter who saw the strikes. The anti-regime forces were not taking any chances and were spreading out deep inside the desert around the area in small groups.

The rebels seem to have reached a point of their campaign where they need to figure out how to organize resupply lines and avoid becoming easy targets for warplanes in their march across the open desert region with little cover. The extent of their westward reach is a checkpoint about six miles (10 kilometers) west of Ras Lanouf.

In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the main rebel stronghold in east, there was an unusual attack after weeks of quiet that followed the rebel capture of the territory. Assailants in a car tossed a grenade at a hotel where foreign journalists were staying, but there were no casualties and only some light damage to windows, an opposition official said.

In diplomatic action, the United States and its NATO allies edged closer Monday to formulating a military response to the escalating violence in Libya as the alliance boosted surveillance flights over the country and the Obama administration signaled it might be willing to help arm Gadhafi’s opponents. Europe, meanwhile, kick-started international efforts to impose a no-fly zone.

France and Britain have taken the lead in drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi’s warplanes from bombing civilians and rebels.

It still appeared unlikely that U.S. warplanes or missiles soon would deploy in Libya. British and French officials said the no-fly resolution was being drawn up as a contingency and it has not been decided whether to put it before the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds veto power and has rejected such a move.

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