BEYIDA, Libya – Rebels holding Libya’s third- and fourth-largest cities Thursday repulsed tank-backed assaults by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces as the embattled dictator struggled to reclaim areas outside the capital and fresh high-level defections further fractured his regime, residents and news reports said.
President Barack Obama and other Western leaders worked to firm up responses to halt a crackdown that is widely feared to have killed more than 1,000 people over the nine-day revolt. The U.S. and its NATO allies were actively considering the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to stop regime airstrikes on civilians.
In his latest diatribe over state-run television Thursday, Gadhafi claimed that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had instigated the rebellion, and admitted that his forces were losing control of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli.
“In Zawiya, this is unbelievable,” Gadhafi said. “People claim they are engineers and teachers and lecturers, so they should have reasonable demands. But these people have no reasonable demands. Their demands are being dictated to them by bin Laden. People of Zawiya, your sons are being duped by bin Laden.”
About 100 people died in four hours of fighting in Zawiya that erupted in the morning and ended with Gadhafi’s forces retreating, said a former senior diplomat reached by phone. The city has a population of about 100,000 and is Libya’s fourth largest city.
During the battle, Gadhafi loyalists fired automatic weapons and an anti-aircraft gun at a mosque where protesters, some armed with hunting rifles, had camped for days, said a witness quoted by the Associated Press.
The city’s defenders – former security forces and civilians armed with weapons seized from local military bases – labored throughout Thursday evening preparing defenses around the main square for what they feared would be a new assault during the night or early today.
“The people are crowded into Martyrs Square and getting themselves ready to fight,” said the former senior diplomat, who asked that his name be withheld for his safety. “We have no choice. We will fight or we will die. There is no peace with Gadhafi as you know.”
Zawiya and two towns east of Tripoli, Misrata and Tajura, were the targets of efforts by Gadhafi to retake the region beyond the capital, where bloody onslaughts by his troops and African mercenaries appear to have crushed the uprising for now.
Misrata, the country’s third-largest city with a population of some 300,000, remained in rebel hands after daylong fighting, while pro-Gadhafi gunmen and African mercenaries occupied Tajura, located about 15 miles southeast of Tripoli, residents said.
The insurrection erupted in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and spread east to the Egyptian border and west along the coast of the Gulf of Sidra, where most of the country’s 6.4 million people live. Most of the eastern region of Cyranaica is in the hands of rebellious officials, troops and armed civilians, while Tripoli, much of the eastern Tripolitania region and the vast reaches of desert in the south appeared to remain under Gadhafi’s control.
Gadhafi “clearly has enough firepower to make a go of it,” said a U.S. official who was tracking developments from Washington who requested anonymity for lack of authorization to speak publicly. “But his regime continues to fracture. People are quitting left and right.”