- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya | Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces swept rebel fighters out of a key oil town and into the desert Sunday with searing waves of artillery fire and airstrikes, extending their rapid advance on the poorly equipped and loosely organized fighters.

The United States, meanwhile, was sending its top diplomat to make contact with Gadhafi opponents in Paris, as it and other world powers considered trying to ground his air force with a no-fly zone that carries many of its own risks.

Rebel officials in their stronghold of Benghazi told the Associated Press that Brega, the site of a major oil terminal, came under heavy shelling Sunday. Libyan state television and a military spokesman said government troops had retaken the town, and several rebel fighters heeding orders to fall back under the heavy bombardment said the town slipped out of their control.

The loss of Brega is the latest in a series of setbacks for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital, Tripoli. Col. Gadhafi’s troops have reversed many of those early gains, bearing down on the rebels with superior firepower from the air.

The rebels are fighting to oust Col. Gadhafi from power after more than 41 years, inspired by protesters who toppled authoritarian rulers in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. However, the Libyan uprising already has proved much more violent and could be the start of a drawn out and bloody civil war.

Col. Gadhafi’s forces pushed the front line miles deeper into rebel territory Saturday to just 25 miles outside Brega. Sunday’s state TV report declared the city has been “cleansed from armed gangs.”

A military spokesman told reporters in the capital that Brega was under government control Sunday. Milad Hussein said rebels there and in other towns taken back in recent days were given the chance to surrender their weapons.

“If they did, they were left alone. If they didn’t, there was an exchange of fire,” he said.

Rebels said government forces conducted strikes on the town with aircraft, tanks and naval ships off the coast.

While those military forces still loyal to Col. Gadhafi appeared to have seized back some momentum, he is becoming more internationally isolated. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was set to leave Sunday for a trip to Europe and the Middle East to establish the Obama administration’s highest-level contacts with the Libyan opposition.

She plans to see foes of Col. Gadhafi in Paris on Monday to assess their capabilities and intentions.

The Arab League also has shunned the Libyan leader and asked the U.N. Security Council on Saturday to impose a no-fly zone. In surprisingly aggressive language, the 22-member bloc said the Libyan government had “lost its sovereignty” and asked the United Nations to “shoulder its responsibility” and impose the restriction.

The rebels have called for a no-fly zone as well, saying they are no match for the Gadhafi regime’s fighter jets.

The U.S. and many allies have expressed deep reservations about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and the possibility it could drag them into another messy conflict in the Muslim world. Western diplomats have said Arab and African approval is necessary before the Security Council can vote on imposing a no-fly zone, which would be imposed by NATO nations to protect civilians from air attack by Col. Gadhafi’s forces.

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