Troops besiege Libyan city held by rebels

BENGHAZI, Libya — Tank-backed troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi tightened a blockade of Libya's fourth-largest city Tuesday after their latest assault was beaten back. Rebels defending Zawiya pleaded for international help, saying that only about two weeks of food and medical supplies remained for the estimated 100,000 residents.

"If they (the international community) have some way to help us, don't wait. Time is running out. Our children are suffering now," said Hesham, a fighter reached by telephone, as he and some 2,000 others watched news reports on a large television in the main square. "We haven't the power to stand more."

The United States, however, made it clear that it's very reluctant to become involved militarily in the crisis, saying that two U.S. Navy assault vessels deploying in the Mediterranean with helicopters and hundreds of Marines would be limited to humanitarian aid and evacuation operations for now.

"All of the options beyond the humanitarian assistance and... evacuation are complex," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who noted that a U.N. resolution slapping sanctions on the Gadhafi regime "provides no authorization for the use of force. There is no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed force."

"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," Gates told a Pentagon news conference.

The Obama administration's caution reflected concern that another foreign military entanglement would further stress U.S. forces strained by nearly 10 years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, and underscored the administration's efforts to avoid fueling anti-Americanism in the Muslim world by taking a role in what's been homegrown anti-government uprisings.

A fresh wave of protests roiled the region Tuesday, with tens of thousands of people clashing with police and motorcycle-borne militiamen in Tehran and other Iranian cities, and demonstrators taking to the streets in Yemen and Bahrain.

In Zawiya, 35 miles west of Libya's capital, Tripoli, the hodgepodge defense force of civilians and police and army defectors held off a six-hour overnight assault by troops and tanks thought to be commanded by Gadhafi's son Khamis, residents said by telephone.

"They attacked from both sides, from the east and the west. We tried to defend ourselves and we stopped them moving to the city, said Hesham, who said that the rebels suffered five or six wounded. "They were using the military cars and small tanks."

Hesham, who asked that his last name be withheld for his safety, said that about 70 people were missing, thought to be kidnapped by the attackers and taken to Tripoli.

The city hasn't received food or medical supplies since the uprising erupted there Feb. 17, he said.

"We still have the materials we had before," but they're likely to run out in about two weeks, "especially the children's milk and stuff like that," Hesham said. "The hospitals are working, but they don't have the full supplies, so they try to do what they can."

"They're trying to starve us to death," said Tarek Zawi, a rebel fighter who said Gadhafi helicopters had been hovering over the city all day and that he'd been told to expect more attacks throughout the night.

"This will be a very bad night," he predicted, "a very bad night."