RAS LANOUF, Libya – Libyan warplanes launched fresh airstrikes on rebel positions around a key oil port Monday, trying to block the opposition fighters from advancing toward Moammar Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital, Tripoli.
Rebels in the area said they can take on Gadhafi's elite ground forces, but are outgunned if he uses his air power.
"We don't want a foreign military intervention, but we do want a no-fly zone," said rebel fighter Ali Suleiman. He added that the rebels can take on "the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi's air force."
Libya appears to be sliding toward a civil war that could drag out for weeks, or even months, as rebels try to oust Gadhafi after 41 years. Resorting to heavy use of air attacks signaled the regime's concern that it needed to check the advance of the rebel force toward Sirte — Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold.
Anti-Gadhafi forces would get a massive morale boost if they captured Sirte, and it would clear a major obstacle on the march toward the gates of Tripoli.
There were no casualties in Monday's airstrike on Ras Lanouf, which came one day after pro-regime forces pounded opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to stop the rebels' rapid advance toward Tripoli.
Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, said his forces are expecting reinforcements from the east.
The uprising against Gadhafi, which began Feb. 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
A government spokesman, Abdel-Majid al-Dursi, denied rumors that there had been an assassination attempt against Gadhafi, saying the claims are "baseless rumors." The speculation started Sunday, when residents in the capital awoke before dawn to the crackle of unusually heavy and sustained gunfire.
Hundreds if not thousands of people have died since Libya's uprising began, although tight restrictions on media make it near impossible to get an accurate tally. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia — another North African country in turmoil after an uprising in January that ousted its longtime leader.
The turmoil is being felt more broadly still in the form of rising oil prices. Libya's oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest.
The conflict in Libya took a turn late last week when government opponents, backed by mutinous army units and armed with weaponry seized from storehouses, went on the offensive. At the same time, pro-Gadhafi forces have conducted counteroffensives to try to retake the towns and oil ports the rebels have captured since they moved out of the rebel-held east.
An opposition force estimated at 500 to 1,000 fighters has been cutting a path west toward Tripoli. On the way, they secured control of two important oil ports at Brega and Ras Lanouf.