By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched counter-offensives on three rebel-held towns on Sunday as the popular uprising escalated into open warfare.
The resilience of Gaddafi's forces in the face of the widespread insurrection and their ability to counter-attack will increase fears that Libya is heading for a protracted civil war rather than the swift revolutions seen in Tunisia and Egypt.
Gaddafi's troops, backed by tanks, artillery, fighter jets and helicopters attacked the towns of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli, and the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, 660 km (410 miles) east of the capital.
Government spokesmen said Gaddafi's forces won a series of swift victories, but many of the towns remained in rebel hands, Reuters reporters at the scene and witnesses said.
Gaddafi loyalists were nevertheless jubilant over the reports and automatic gunfire reverberated around the capital.
"These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi," spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, referring to Libya's rebel-controlled second largest city situated in the far east.
While Benghazi remained firmly in rebel hands, government troops pushed rebels out of the town of Bin Jawad which they had captured on Saturday, back to Ras Lanuf.
One fighter returning wounded to Ras Lanuf from the frontline was asked what he had seen. He replied: "Death."
Rebels surrounded by Gaddafi troops near the center of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, faced another onslaught on Sunday after repelling two major assaults by tanks and infantry the day before.
"This morning, there was a new attack, bigger than yesterday. There were one and a half hours of fighting ... Two people were killed from our side and many more injured," spokesman Youssef Shagan said by telephone.
"We are still in full control of the square. Now it is quiet," he added.
Elite forces under Gaddafi's son Khamis also launched an assault on Misrata, 200 km (125 miles) east of the capital.
"Very, very heavy fighting is taking place now at the western entrance of the town. The fighting started about an hour ago after an attack by brigades belonging to Khamis," said the resident, called Mohamed.
"They are destroying everything they find. They are using artillery and tanks. Revolutionaries are doing their best to prevent them from reaching the center of the town," he said.
Doctors at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 22 wounded had arrived from the fighting. A French journalist was shot in the leg, a doctor said, and four rebels were seriously wounded and unlikely to survive.
But the rebels said they had shot down a helicopter. Three rebel fighters speaking at Ras Lanuf said they had seen the helicopter fall into the sea. A Reuters correspondent was shown the wreckage of a warplane on Saturday that rebels said they had shot down. Several witnesses in Bin Jawad said there were many dead and wounded that could not be reached. One man said he had seen a civilian building hit by a bomb.
"The wounded people shouted at us to get their children out. We left the dead," said Khaled Abdul Karim, a rebel fighter.
BRITISH TROOPS SEIZED
Britain's Sunday Times reported that rebels had seized a British SAS special forces unit of up to eight soldiers escorting a junior diplomat in eastern Libya on a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders.
The SAS intervention angered opposition figures who fear Gaddafi could use evidence of Western military intervention to sway patriotic support away from the uprising, according to the London paper.
"I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team is in Benghazi. We are in touch with them, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment further," British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC.
Despite repeated questions, Fox refused to say whether the group was in danger or was being held captive.
"We want to clearly understand what the dynamic is there because we want to be able to work with them to ensure the demise of the Gaddafi regime, to see a transition to greater stability in Libya and ultimately to more representative government," Fox said.
In a French newspaper interview, Gaddafi said he was embroiled in a fight against Islamist "terrorism" and expressed dismay at the absence of support from abroad.
"I am surprised that nobody understands that this is a fight against terrorism," Gaddafi told le Journal du Dimanche.
"Our security services cooperate. We have helped you a lot these past few years. So why is it that when we are in a fight against terrorism here in Libya no one helps us in return?"
Western leaders have denounced what they call Gaddafi's brutal response to the uprising, and the International Criminal Court said he and his inner circle face investigation for alleged targeting of civilians by his security forces.
But the opposition, while assembling an inspired fighting force, has failed to produce a convincingly clear leadership, a weakness Gaddafi hopes to exploit as the struggle continues.
The International Energy Agency said the revolt had blocked about 60 percent of Libya's 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) oil output. The drop, due largely to the flight of thousands of foreign oil workers, will batter the economy and have already jacked up crude prices abroad.
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Ajdabiya, Mohammed Abbas in Bin Jawad, Stefano Ambrogi in London, Nick Vinocur in Paris and Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Hemming; Editing by Michael Roddy)