The U.S. believes Col. Moammar Gadhafi has solidified control in parts of Libya, creating a stalemate with rebels and raising the stakes in the Obama administration’s internal debate about whether to take military action to help the opposition, officials said.
Pro-regime forces pressed into the rebel-held city of Zawiya, near the capital, and appeared to have halted the opposition’s momentum to the east in fighting Tuesday.
With the struggle appearing to settle into a standoff, the Obama administration, working with allies, looked into options for intervention, while the European Union prepared to announce broader sanctions on the Libyan government, including an asset freeze.
Rebels in their base in the eastern city of Benghazi, after first suggesting they had made an amnesty offer to the Libyan leader, denied any back-channel negotiations were under way.
After days of attacks and counterattacks, the opposing forces appeared to dig in east of the capital Tuesday, with rebels clinging to the oil-refinery town of Ras Lanuf and Mr. Gadhafi’s forces solidifying their hold on the small town of Bin Jawad just to the west.
Rebels have taken heavy losses in their repeated attempts to take Bin Jawad. On Tuesday, Libyan state television broadcast images of dozens of bound men lying face down on the ground. It claimed they were captured rebel fighters.
Libyan government forces appear more cohesive and have been able to regroup, a senior U.S. official said.
“What we’re looking at right nowâ€”and things can change on a dime in these kinds of fluid conflictsâ€”is basically a stalemate in certain parts of Libya,” another U.S. official said. “Gadhafi has solidified his control of some areas while the rebels have the upper hand in other places.”
Pro-Gadhafi forces continued to launch airstrikes on Ras Lanuf, with at least four more strikes reported on Tuesday, according to witnesses.
Col. Gadhafi’s loyalists also launched an attack on Zawiya, the rebel-held city closest to Tripoli and the sole rebel redoubt in western Libya, the Associated Press reported, citing a witness. Col. Gadhafi’s tanks and fighting vehicles were roaming the city and firing randomly at homes, the witness said.
Rebels had held the center of Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital, while government forces controlled the outskirts. There were no clear reports, however, that government forces had retaken the city following a counteroffensive that began Monday.
“The city is in ruins,” the witness told the AP. “Some buildings have been entirely destroyed and everyone on the street is shot on sight. There are many wounded, but the hospitals are running out of supplies,” he said.
The new assessment of Col. Gadhafi’s gains come as Pentagon planning swung into high gear on a range of humanitarian and military options to curb the fighting in Libya, reflecting growing concern about deteriorating living conditions for refugees and Col. Gadhafi’s use of air power against rebel forces.
The U.S. has said it wants Gadhafi to leave now and for the Libyan people to sort out what comes next.
In Tripoli, Libyan officials, promising access to Col.Gadhafi at an impromptu media briefing, succeeded in corraling most of the estimated 150 international journalists in the capital inside a luxury hotel from around 2 p.m. until midnight. Many journalists weren’t allowed to leave the compound while waiting for the promised briefing, which never materialized.
At around 11 p.m., journalists got a brief glimpse of the leader sweeping into the hotel to a closed room where he conducted private interviews with Turkish and French television channels.
Col. Gadhafi told the interviewers that the United Nations Security Council couldn’t endorse the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya without first sending a fact-finding mission, a Libyan official said.
The Libyan leader also repeated his accusation that the unrest was engineered by al Qaeda, and denied that security forces have used indiscriminate force. “He was in a very good mood,” the official said.
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