Muammar Gaddafi’s forces battled poorly-armed rebels for control of towns near the capital trying to create a buffer zone around his seat of power.
The increasingly violent clashes threatened to transform the 15-day popular rebellion in Libya into a drawn-out civil war. Amid the intensified fighting on Tuesday, the international community stepped up moves to isolate the longtime Libyan leader.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he ordered two ships into the Mediterranean, including the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, and he is sending 400 Marines to the vessel to replace some troops that left recently for Afghanistan.
Military leaders weighing a no-fly zone over Libya said it would be a complex task that would require taking out Gadhafi’s air defences, and Russia’s top diplomat dismissed the idea as “superfluous” and said world powers should focus on sanctions.
Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, warned Western forces not to take military action against Libya and said the country is prepared to defend itself against foreign intervention. “If they attack us, we are ready,” he told Sky News, adding that the Gadhafis are ready to implement reforms.
Facing an unprecedented challenge to his 41-year rule, Gaddafi’s regime has launched the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of uprising against authoritarian rulers in the Middle East.
Gaddafi has already lost control of the eastern half of the country but still holds Tripoli and other nearby cities.
An exact death toll has been difficult to obtain in the chaos, but a medical committee in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the uprising began on February 15, said at least 228 people had been killed, including 30 unidentified bodies, and 1,932 wounded.
On Tuesday, Gaddafi’s regime sought to show that it was the country’s only legitimate authority and that it continued to feel compassion for areas in the east that fell under the control of its opponents.
A total of 18 trucks loaded with rice, flour, sugar and eggs left Tripoli for Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city 1,000km east of the capital. Also in the convoy were two refrigerated cars carrying medical supplies. People in opposition-controlled areas were running low on medical supplies.
Dr Abdullah Gleissa, head of surgery at Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi said that while it had enough basic medical supplies, it was short of some instruments, narcotics and personnel skilled in certain types of surgery.
“We are still clearing up cases that have been waiting for operations,” he said.