TRIPOLI, Libya – Government opponents in rebel-held Zawiya repelled an attempt by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi to retake the city closest to the capital in six hours of fighting overnight, witnesses said Tuesday.
The rebels, who include mutinous army forces, are armed with tanks, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They fought back pro-Qaddafi troops, armed with the same weapons, who attacked from six directions. There was no word on casualties in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli.
A similar attempt was made by pro-Qaddafi forces Monday night to retake the city of Misrata, Libya's third-largest city 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli. Rebel forces there repelled the attackers.
"We will not give up Zawiya at any price," said one witness. "We know it is significant strategically. They will fight to get it, but we will not give up. We managed to defeat them because our spirits are high and their spirits are zero."
Qaddafi, Libya's ruler of 41 years, has already lost control of the eastern half of the country since protests demanding his ouster began two weeks ago. He still holds the capital Tripoli and nearby cities.
The witnesses in Zawiya said youths from the city were stationed on the rooftops of high-rise buildings in the city to monitor the movements of the pro-Qaddafi forces and sound the warning if they though an attack was imminent. They also spoke about generous offers of cash by the regime for the rebels to hand control of the city back to authorities.
On Tuesday, Qaddafi's regime sought to show that it was the country's only legitimate authority and that it continued to feel compassion for areas in the east that fell under the control of its opponents.
A total of 18 trucks loaded with rice, wheat-flour, sugar and eggs left Tripoli for Benghazi, the country's second largest city 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) east of the capital. Also in the convoy were two refrigerated cars carrying medical supplies.
The convoy was met with a small pro-Qaddafi demonstration as it made its way out of Tripoli. "God, Qaddafi, Libya and that's it," chanted the demonstrators.
"The state is very generous with the people," said 22-year-old Ahmed Mahmoud as he watched the convoy.
Qaddafi has launched the most brutal crackdown of any Arab regime facing a wave of anti-government uprisings spreading quickly around the Middle East. But international pressure to end the crackdown has escalated dramatically in the past few days.
The U.S. moved naval and air forces closer to Libya on Monday and said all options were open, including patrols of the North African nation's skies to protect its citizens from their ruler.
France said it would fly aid to the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The European Union imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions, following the lead of the U.S. and the U.N. The EU was also considering the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya. And the U.S. and Europe were freezing billions in Libya's foreign assets.
"Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "No option is off the table. That of course includes a no-fly zone," she added. British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers: "We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets" to deal with Qaddafi's regime.
Qaddafi laughed off a question from ABC News about whether he would step down as the Obama administration is demanding.
"My people love me. They would die for me," he said. ABC reported that Qaddafi invited the United Nations or any other organization to Libya on a fact-finding mission.
Qaddafi's remarks were met with derision in Washington.
"It sounds, just frankly, delusional," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice. She added that Qaddafi's behavior, including laughing on camera in TV interviews amid the chaos, "underscores how unfit he is to lead and how disconnected he is from reality."
On Monday night, an Associated Press reporter saw a large, pro-Qaddafi force massed on the western edge of Zawiya, with about a dozen armored vehicles along with tanks and jeeps mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
An officer said they were from the elite Khamis Brigade, named after one of Qaddafi's sons who commands it. U.S. diplomats have said the brigade is the best-equipped force in Libya.
"We were able to repulse the attack. We damaged a tank with an RPG. The mercenaries fled after that," said a resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
He said Qaddafi called Zawiya's influential tribal leader Mohammed al-Maktouf and warned him that if the rebels don't leave the city's main square by early Tuesday, they will be hit by warplanes. "We are expecting a major battle," the resident said, adding that the rebels killed eight soldiers and mercenaries Monday.
Another resident of Zawiya said he heard gunfire well into the night on the outskirts of town.
In Misrata, pro-Qaddafi troops who control part of an air base on the city's outskirts tried to advance Monday. But they were repulsed by opposition forces, who included residents with automatic weapons and defected army units allied with them, one of the opposition fighters said.
No casualties were reported and the fighter claimed that his side had captured eight soldiers, including a senior officer.
The opposition controls most of the air base, and the fighter said dozens of anti-Qaddafi gunmen have arrived from farther east in recent days as reinforcements.