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's 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."
"Zawiya is slipping from our hands because your sons are listening to bin Laden," he ranted, adding ironically that "A real man doesn't use arms against innocent people."
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 Friday.
"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."
Ahmed Gadhaf al Dam, Gadhafi's nephew and a diplomatic troubleshooter, became the latest high-level defector, joining a growing raft of ambassadors, bureaucrats and senior military commanders in denouncing the bloody tactics employed by the regime.
In a statement released in Cairo, Dam condemned "grave violations to human rights," and said that he had left Libya for Egypt "in protest and to show disagreement" with his uncle.
In Misrata, about 100 miles east of Tripoli, Gadhafi's forces encountered stiff resistance from civilians armed with guns abandoned by soldiers who fled, said Ahmed, 36, whom McClatchy reached by cell phone.
Tanks deployed into the town, unleashing shellfire into the streets as terrified residents fled, said Ahmed, whose last name also was withheld by McClatchy for his safety.
"I might die soon. I might die soon," Ahmed said, sobbing. "The tanks are here. I see them. I am speaking from a ditch and I can't move. A mortar just dropped nearby."
As he spoke, gunfire blasted in the background. People could be heard shouting "God is great" and saying a prayer that Muslims recite before they die.
The attackers were from Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, and were based in the Hamza Katiba, the local security compound, Ahmed said.
"He (Gadhafi) is killing the people. He is striking the people. What is this? They are not Arabs. They are not Muslims," Ahmed cried.
A huge explosion rang out that Ahmed said was an ammunition dump blowing up.
The attackers failed to recapture the city or retake its small airport, witnesses told the Associated Press.
Photographs taken Wednesday in Misrata and posted on the Internet showed the city's defenders in possession of at least one tank, a number of mobile anti-aircraft guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons. The main municipal building was surrounded by a wall of sandbags.
Meanwhile, a resident of Tajura, about 15 miles southeast of Tripoli, said that a large force of pro-Gadhafi gunmen and African mercenaries backed by tanks was occupying the center of the town, firing at anyone who left his home.
Essam, whose last name was withheld by McClatchy for his safety, said he counted 21 bodies in the town center and outside a cardiac medical facility.
Protesters took over Tajura, the hometown of Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, on Sunday as thousands of anti-Gadhafi demonstrators poured into the center of Tripoli.
In his broadcast, Gadhafi, who stood against a photograph of him swathed in a brown cloak and brown headdress, said bin Laden and his followers instigated the uprising by giving hallucinogenic drugs to young people.
"You can find them in the mosques trying to pontificate and give your sons drugs. They should be put on trial," he said. "My brothers, you shouldn't listen to bin Laden and his followers. I am ordering every family. Go after your sons."
Bin Laden is thought to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region, bordering Afghanistan.
In another bizarre claim, Gadhafi insisted that "the whole world is siding with us to fight international terrorism, including Europe and the West."
While direct U.S. interests in the oil-rich North African country are limited, Europe depends on Libya for oil and natural gas. The unrest has sent international petroleum prices skyrocketing, with crude prices settling $97.28 a barrel in New York.
Obama downplayed the threat of an oil price spike to the fragile U.S. economy.
"We actually think that we'll be able to ride out the Libya situation, and it will stabilize," he said.
Obama also conferred with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has called for a second United Nations Security Council meeting on Libya, and with British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy — Libya's former colonial master.
There were ongoing discussions at the White House of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, said a U.S. official and experts in touch with the administration.
A European diplomat said some European militaries also are studying a no-fly zone, which could prevent military aircraft from attacking protesters and block Gadhafi's regime from transporting troops and foreign mercenaries.
Italy, because of its proximity, would be best suited to take the lead, but no decision is imminent, said the diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Other steps being pursued at the U.N. and in the European Union are measures to speed humanitarian aid to Libya; block travel by regime officials; and freeze Libya's assets. The European official called the last step critical, because it could crimp Gadhafi's ability to hire African mercenaries who have been killing rebels.
A U.S. government-chartered ferry to evacuate American citizens remained docked at Tripoli for a second day, as bad weather continued to block its departure for Malta. There are 40 U.S. diplomats and family members, 127 private U.S. citizens and 118 citizens of other countries aboard, State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said.
The State Department, which advised Americans in Libya to "depart immediately," also is chartering a flight from Tripoli on Friday.
(Allam reported from Beyida, Libya. Landay and Strobel reported from Washington. Margaret Talev in Washington and Ameera Butt of the Merced Sun-Star in Merced, Calif., contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011