Loyalists step up counterattack on Libyan rebels

RAS LANUF, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists escalated a lethal counterattack on Sunday, heightening assaults on rebel-held cities near his western stronghold of Tripoli and pushing back opposition forces attempting to advance toward the capital.

Gadhafi's expanding campaign — including a ground assault on Misurata, the nation's third largest city — appeared to dash rebel hopes to put a swift end to his 41-year rule.

Though the opposition has claimed most of the eastern half of the country since Feb. 17, the display of the government's superior firepower had loyalists celebrating in the streets of Tripoli, with state television showing them unfurling the green flag of Gadhafi's Libya and firing machine guns into the air.

The intensity of the government assault suggested the nation was plunging deeper into a bloody civil war, with a regrouping Gadhafi lashing out at his enemies.

On Sunday, a ragtag band of rebels boldly advanced from this desert oil town 410 miles east of the capital toward Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, with their sights on Tripoli farther down the road. But they returned in the late morning, shaken by what they described as a merciless surprise attack by government forces with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy artillery.

Retreating rebels said they took significant casualties in the assault, interrupting a string of recent opposition victories in their push to Tripoli.

"We got smashed. They are much armed," said Jamal el-Guradi, a U.S.-born baker of Libyan decent who came to fight with rebel forces. Fighters seeking to unseat Gadhafi managed to recover, however, and held regime forces to an apparent standstill by day's end.

In the still largely government-controlled west, meanwhile, Gadhafi's forces appeared to be sending a message to rebel-held towns that resistance would be met with ruthless force. In Zawiyah, a city 27 miles west of Tripoli that is vital to Libya's oil industry, witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded in a bloody siege Saturday. Eyewitness reports said government forces were again bombarding the city on Sunday, and the Internet, electricity and phone lines appeared to be down.

About 130 miles east of Tripoli, the government targeted rebel-held Misurata with mortar fire as tanks rolled into the city about 10 a.m. After a five-hour battle, residents and rebel officials there said the opposition had managed to expel the loyalist force — a statement supported by al-Jazeera television footage.

A rebel spokesman at a Misurata hospital, Abed el-Salam Bayo, said 21 opposition fighters and civilians were killed, along with 19 government troops. There were at least 88 wounded.