BREGA, Libya -- Rebels held out Friday in part of a strategic oil port after fierce fighting with Muammar Qaddafi loyalists waging a heavy counteroffensive trying to push the opposition further east away from the capital.
Pro-Qaddafi forces barraged rebels a day earlier with an hourslong hail of rockets and tank and artillery shells in their strongest attempt yet to recapture the oil facility of Ras Lanouf, in central Libya. The assault sent hundreds of rebel fighters into a frantic retreat further east, fleeing in cars and pickup trucks fitted with heavy machine guns.
But some opposition forces -- including special commando forces that defected to the rebellion -- continued the battle into the evening. By sunset, the regime troops burst into the residential area of Ras Lanouf, forcing rebels there to pull back, said Ibrahim Said, deputy director of the main hospital in Ajdabiya, a nearby city where rebel wounded were taken.
The rebel forces continued to hold out in the oil facilities and industrial areas of Ras Lanouf, about 10 miles east of the residential area. Four people were killed and 42 wounded in Thursday's fighting.
The powerful assault on Ras Lanouf underscored how Qaddafi's forces have seized the momentum in the back-and-forth battle with rebels, being waged mainly along the country's long Mediterranean coastline. In the uprising that began Feb. 15, nearly the entire eastern half of the coast fell into the hands of the opposition, along with several cities in the western half, close to the capital Tripoli, which remains Qaddafi's strongest bastion.
But government forces have repelled the rebels attempt last week to march west along the coast and if they decisively take Ras Lanouf, they could threaten the opposition's bastions further east.
In Washington, the U.S. director of national intelligence stressed that Qaddafi'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 Qaddafi to step down, and the White House later distanced Obama from the director's assessment.
The opposition, however, made some diplomatic gains. France became the first country to recognize the rebels' eastern-based governing council, and an ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government was planning "targeted operations" to defend civilians if the international community approves. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would meet with opposition leaders in the U.S., Egypt and Tunisia.
In Tripoli, Qaddafi's son Seif al-Islam vowed to retake the eastern half of the country, which has been in opposition hands since early in the 3-week-old uprising.
"I have two words to our brothers and sisters in the east: We're coming," he told a cheering crowd of young supporters. The son depicted Libyans in the east as being held "hostage" by terrorists.
Qaddafi'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."
There were demonstrations after prayers for the past two Fridays, and militiamen used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the crowds who had gathered in mosques. There were an undetermined number of deaths after the Feb. 25 demonstrations.
There were no concrete signs of Western moves toward military assistance that the opposition has been pleading for. A rebel spokesman went beyond repeated calls for a no-fly zone to prevent Qaddafi's air force from harrying opposition fighters and said the West should carry out direct strikes against regime troops.
"We have requested for all steps to be taken to protect the Libyan people. We believe the U.N. can do that. The bombardment of mercenaries and Qaddafi troop camps are among our demands," Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman of the governing council, told reporters in the opposition's eastern bastion of Benghazi.
The battle at Ras Lanouf was a heavy blow for the ragtag rebel forces of armed civilians and mutinous army units that only days before had confidently charged west from the port, boasting they would march the hundreds of miles (kilometers) to "liberate" Tripoli.
Taking back the oil facility would be a major victory for Qaddafi, pushing his zone of control farther along the coast. His regime has also claimed a victory in the west, saying Wednesday it recaptured Zawiya, the closest rebel-held city to the capital, after a six-day siege. Western journalists in Tripoli were taken late Wednesday to a stadium on the outskirts of Zawiya that was filled with Qaddafi loyalists waving green flags and launching fireworks. But the journalists were not allowed to visit Zawiya's main square, and the extent of government control was not known in the city, located on Tripoli's western doorstep.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid reiterated the government's claim Thursday, reading a military statement that Zawiya had been recaptured at 11 a.m. Wednesday and journalists would be taken Friday to visit the city.
"Now the forces are cleaning the city of the extremist armed militants," Qaid told reporters. He said "the security forces and civilians" had seized weapons and ammunition, including anti-aircraft guns, mortar shells and anti-tank missiles.
At a U.S. Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said there was no indication that Qaddafi would step down and offer a speedy resolution to the crisis.
"Qaddafi is in this for the long haul," he said. "From all evidence that we have ... he appears to be hunkering down for the duration."
Pressed on which side had the momentum, he was even clearer: "I think in the longer term that the regime will prevail."
Hours later, the White House distanced Obama from Clapper's remarks. Obama does not think Qaddafi will prevail, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama's position on Clapper's comments. The official reiterated Obama's stand that Qaddafi has lost legitimacy and should leave power.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Clapper has the full confidence of the president.