RAS LANOUF, Libya – A giant yellow fireball shot into the sky, trailed by thick plumes of black smoke Wednesday after fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi set two oil installations ablaze and inflicted yet more damage on Libya’s crippled energy industry.
In the west, Gadhafi claimed victory in recapturing Zawiya, the city closest to the capital that had fallen into opposition hands. The claim could not immediately be verified; phone lines there have not been working during a deadly, six-day siege.
State TV showed a crowd of hundreds, purportedly in Zawiya’s main square, shouting “The people want Colonel Gadhafi!” but the location of the rally could not be independently confirmed.
Western journalists based in Tripoli were taken late Wednesday to a stadium on the outskirts of Zawiya that was filled with Gadhafi loyalists waving green flags in a similar scene, complete with fireworks. Libyan TV cameras filmed the celebrations as food, drinks and cooking oil were distributed.
Government escorts refused journalists’ requests to visit the city’s main square.
The fall of Zawiya to anti-Gadhafi residents early on in the uprising that began Feb. 15 illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the opposition. But Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering the rebels with airstrikes and artillery fire and repulsing their westward march toward the capital, Tripoli.
Gadhafi’s successes have left Western powers struggling to come up with a plan to support the rebels without becoming ensnared in the complex and fast-moving conflict. On Wednesday, a high-ranking member of the Libyan military flew to Cairo with a message for Egyptian army officials from Gadhafi, but no further details were known.
President Barack Obama’s national security team weighed how to force Gadhafi from power and halt his crackdown on rebels, but the White House said no action was imminent.
The NATO alliance said it was planning for any eventuality in the Libyan crisis. But with Defense Secretary Robert Gates preparing to join a meeting of alliance defense chiefs to discuss military options on Thursday, there was little sign they would agree to set up a no-fly zone over the North African country.