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 a city that had been in rebel hands.
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 Gadhafi ground offensive that never came.
In Washington, the White House said it's studying military options, including imposing a no-fly zone, and President Barack Obama reiterated a warning that Gadhafi and his allies would be held accountable for atrocities against civilians.
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 with each passing day of fighting. 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 in the preliminary stage, 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.
A no-fly zone also faces diplomatic obstacles. Daalder and other U.S. officials said Monday that the step would almost certainly require authorization from the United Nations Security Council — a step Russia and China are likely to veto.
Obama renewed a warning that Gadhafi's associates would be held accountable "for whatever violence continues to take place." But the warning appeared to have negligible immediate impact.
A resident of Zawiya, reached by phone, painted a grim picture of what was taking place in the city, 30 miles west of Tripoli. Regime troops, he said, were "attacking the people, destroying everything, killing civilians, everything."
The resident, who can't be named for safety reasons, estimated that 60 rebel fighters and an unknown number of Gadhafi loyalists had been killed.
"The people, they have nothing. They're just trying to fight (with) hunting guns, something like that. We don't have heavy guns," he said. "They are now exploding the gas stations, a lot of houses have been destroyed today. . . . Nobody is standing with us now."
In Ras Lanouf, panic set in about Gadhafi's next move within hours of the rebels' first loss at Bin Jawwad, which Gadhafi forces took Sunday. At around 3:30 a.m., residents in Ras Lanouf began waking one another, warning of a Gadhafi attack.
As young men scrambled over stucco walls with assault rifles slung over their backs, streams of cars with the few remaining women and children headed for the main highway.
They converged at the first service station to fill up.
Salem Abu Zayed, 18, said he'd fought in Bin Jawwad, until Gadhafi forces arrested his cousins, he said. Now he said he's getting his family out of the city and then would return.
"The forces are coming from Sirte," he said confidently, though he couldn't say how he knew.
But the feared attack never came. On Monday, Libyan aircraft bombed Ras Lanouf, and some rebel fighters girded for battle.
Tomorrow, they said, Gadhafi forces would strike.
(Youssef reported from Ras Lanouf, Strobel, from Washington. Ameera Butt of the Merced-Sun Star contributed to this article from Merced, Calif. Steven Thomma contributed from Washington.)
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