BREGA, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi loyalists shelled around a key oil port Friday trying to dislodge rebels who have dug in and are struggling to regroup after their fighters were scattered in a heavy regime offensive.
The rebels appeared to have a tenacious hold around the oil facilities at Ras Lanouf, taking refuge among the towering storage containers of crude oil and gas. Government forces stopped directing their fire at those positions, apparently to avoid blowing up the facility's infrastructure, according to fighters.
Instead, the pro-Gadhafi troops, positioned in Ras Lanouf's residential about 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of the oil port across a barren desert no man's land, were raining rockets and shelling along the main coastal highway, targeting rebel vehicles trying to reinforce and bring supplies to the port, said Mohammed Gherani, a rebel fighter.
The bodies of at least three opposition fighters killed in the shelling were brought to rebel-held Brega, a larger oil port to the west, bringing the toll from two days of battles at Ras Lanouf to at least nine.
The standoff in Ras Lanouf was an attempt by the rebels' ragtag force to halt a dramatic shift in the momentum of Libya's upheaval, which is shaping into a potential civil war. Last week, opposition forces that hold the entire eastern half of the country came charging along the Mediterranean coast westward, trying to push toward the capital Tripoli, Gadhafi's strongest bastion.
But the regime struck back with an overwhelming force, backed by warplanes, artillery, rockets and tanks, that over the past few days pushed the rebels back to Ras Lanouf, 380 miles, 615 kilometers, southeast of Tripoli. On Thursday, pro-Gadhafi forces barraged the port for hours, reportedly adding warships shelling from off shore to their arsenal, in an assault that stunned the once-confident rebels and sent hundreds of their volunteer fighters fleeing in an unorganized retreat.
"They came from the air, they came from the sea, and there were rockets everywhere. It was a big surprise for us," one rebel fighter, Mustafa Mehrik, a 39-year-old coffeeshop owner, said in Brega. "Everyone is worried. Today they say there will bring heavy weapons from Benghazi."
In Tripoli, Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam vowed to retake the eastern half of the country. If government forces take Ras Lanouf, they could threaten the opposition's bastions further east.
"I have two words to our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," he told a cheering crowd of young supporters late Thursday. The son depicted Libyans in the east as being held "hostage" by terrorists.
The rebel force at the Ras Lanouf front appeared thinner Friday, perhaps a sign they had yet to regroup from Thursday's blow. The core of the opposition port holding out at the oil facilities appeared to be the more disciplined soldiers from army units that defected and joined the uprising.
At Brega's western entrance, facing Ras Lanouf, there were few rebel fighters to be seen at the checkpoint — usually the scene of many fighters waving their automatic weapons. Few fighters or equipment were seen passing through on the way to Ras Lanouf, except an occasional pickup truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back. Doctors in Brega said six people were killed in Thursday's fighting, raising their previous count of four.
The assault on Ras Lanouf was a sign of greater confidence in the Gadhafi camp after it first seemed to reel in confusion for the much of the uprising that began Feb. 15.
In Washington, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stressed that Gadhafi's military was stronger than it has been described and said that "in the longer term ... the regime will prevail." President Barack Obama has called on Gadhafi to step down, and the White House later distanced Obama from the director's assessment.
The regime confidence may stem in part from a surer hold in the capital, where a heavy crackdown by pro-Gadhafi militiamen has stifled attempts at protests. At the same time, there has been little sign of military intervention by the West, where leaders have struggled with finding a way to respond to the crisis.
The prospect of the quick imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Gadhafi regime's fighter jets appeared to be fading, with German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere insisting that the Arab League must first make clear what it wants. The Arab League meets on Libya in Cairo on Saturday.
Gadhafi opponents have attempted to hold protests every Friday for the past weeks in Tripoli, met each time by a fierce retaliation from militiamen.
On Friday, it appeared that no demonstrations got off the ground. In Tripoli's Tajoura district — scene of some of the heaviest past protests — police deployed in significant numbers outside the main local Murad Agha mosque to prevent marches after prayers. The main road from Tajoura to downtown was blocked by repeated checkpoints.
Gadhafi's government sent a text message to Tripoli residents, warning imams at mosques against allowing protests after Friday prayers. The message quoted Saudi cleric Sheik Saleh Fawzan, a member of the Saudi Supreme Scholars Council, as saying it was "unacceptable" for any imam "who incites people (or) causes disturbances of the society in any mosque."
European Union leaders were meeting in a summit Friday, promising measures that would increase Gadhafi's isolation. But there was a backlash among them against French President Nicolas Sarkozy after he unilaterally announced France's diplomatic recognition of Libya's opposition governing council.
Sarkozy was unrepentant. "Democracy is a right for all people," he said, urging the EU to recognize the opposition "because nothing would be worse than to see a country in a situation like Somalia, without leaders and representatives."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose relationship with Sarkozy is sometimes prickly, said the European Union needed to send a united signal, "since 'divide and rule' would only play into the hands of Gadhafi."
The council France recognized is an umbrella group of Libyan rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi, which was taken over in a deadly uprising that has spread throughout much of the oil-rich North African country.
Maggie Michael in Tripoli and Zeina Karam in Cairo contributed to this report.