By Mohammed Abbas
AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's warplanes and helicopters bombed and strafed a Libyan rebel-held town on Tuesday while France admitted it has still not convinced world powers to impose a no-fly zone over the country.
Lightly armed rebel forces are struggling to hold back the relentless eastward advance of Libyan government troops along the bleak desert coast, slowly strangling the month-old uprising against Gaddafi's 41 years of autocratic rule.
Jets launched air strikes on the western gate of Ajdabiyah, the last town before the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, witnesses said, and a helicopter strafed the town which lies on a strategic road junction.
Government tactics during their counter-offensive have followed a pattern. Aerial bombings are followed by artillery barrage, then by an armored ground assault, suggesting Ajdabiyah was being softened up for an attack.
But while an advance on Ajdabiyah could not be ruled out, fighting still raged for the third day in the oil terminal town of Brega, along the coast southwest of Ajdabiyah, rebels said.
In a foretaste of the ferocity and chaos of urban fighting which could envelop Benghazi, a city of 670,000, Brega, with a population of just 4,300, has changed hands several times with rebels fighting a guerrilla rearguard amongst the rubble.
"In Brega, it is still advance and retreat, we are not in control and they are not either," said rebel fighter Hussein al-Wami.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries, meeting in Paris for the second day on Tuesday, were still no closer to agreeing to press the United Nations Security Council to back a no-fly zone to protect Libyan cities from aerial bombardment.
"So far I have not convinced them," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France's Europe 1 radio.
Juppe said that while the international community drags its feet on taking action, Gaddafi's forces were advancing.
"If we had used military force last week ... maybe the reversal that went against the opposition (forces) would not have happened," he said.
France, along with Britain, has led calls to impose a no-fly zone. President Nicolas Sarkozy is keen to show leadership to try and restore France's foreign policy image, which was weakened by blunders over the uprising in Tunisia last year.
Gaddafi dismissed demands for a no-fly zone.
"We will fight and win. A situation of that type will only serve to unite the Libyan people," he told the Italian daily Il Giornale. Sarkozy, he said, "had a mental disorder."
After a G8 dinner on Monday evening in Paris, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle voiced skepticism about a no-fly zone, telling reporters it amounted to a military intervention.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Russia had argued that a no-fly zone would not be effective and could be counterproductive. He said that rather than push for a no-fly zone, the G8 would urge the Security Council to discuss new measures that could curb the violence in Libya.
The two-day G8 meeting winds up with a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
"A REAL BLOODBATH"
The U.N. Security Council has discussed a call by the Arab League for a U.N. no-fly zone, but no consensus emerged among its 15 members and Russia raised questions about the proposal.
"Fundamental questions need to be answered, not just what we need to do, but how it's going to be done," Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York.
While diplomats debate, there is now a very real possibility that by the time they agree on a response to the conflict, Gaddafi's forces may already have won.
Ajdabiyah commands roads to both Benghazi and Tobruk that could allow Gaddafi's troops to encircle Benghazi.
Soliman Bouchuiguir, president of the Libyan League for Human Rights, said in Geneva that if Gaddafi's heavily armed forces broke through to attack Benghazi, there would be "a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda."
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said Gaddafi's government had "chosen to attack civilians with massive, indiscriminate force."
(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi, Mariam Karouny in Djerba, Tunisia, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, James Regan, Tim Hepher, Arshad Mohammed and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Giles Elgood)