RAS LANOUF, Libya — As the U.S. and NATO allies debated a no-fly zone and other military options in Libya, forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi appeared to seize the initiative Monday in brutal counter-assaults against opponents of the Libyan leader.
In the western city of Zawiya, government forces, backed by as many as 50 tanks, inflicted heavy damage and killed dozens of rebel fighters and civilians, a resident said, seizing at least partial control of the city.
In eastern Libya, pro-Gadhafi forces conducted air strikes on Ras Lanouf, a key rebel-held oil terminal. Some fighters, unnerved by their first defeat Sunday in the town of Bin Jawwad, fled Ras Lanouf after hearing rumors of a ground offensive that never came.
In Washington, the White House said it's studying military options, including imposing a no-fly zone, and President Obama reiterated a warning that Gadhafi and his allies would be held accountable for atrocities against civilians.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But developments raised the question of whether outside help, if it comes, would come too late.
In Benghazi, the de facto capital of the rebel-held east, Libyans' frustrations with the United States grow each day. The lack of international help for their movement ensures a long battle and many casualties, fighters say.
The U.S. position is baffling, they said.
"We can't determine if it is a negative or positive attitude from the United States because we think that Obama is holding the stick in the middle," said one Benghazi resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons. "He has previous commitments with the Gadhafi regime. He is also thinking about whether the rebels take over. The U.S. position is not clear."
The 28-nation NATO alliance decided Monday to expand air surveillance of Libya from 10 hours a day to 24, said U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, a step that could be a prelude to enforcing a no-fly zone prohibiting Gadhafi's forces from using air power.
But Daalder said discussions of a no-fly zone are still preliminary, and he questioned whether enforcing one would change the military situation on the ground.
"The overall air activity has not been the deciding factor in the ongoing unrest," he said, noting that Libyan jet fighter activity actually decreased over the weekend after peaking at the end of last week.
NATO also prepared to make ships and planes available to help evacuate refugees and deliver humanitarian supplies. Alliance defense ministers will discuss Libya when they meet Thursday in Brussels.