By Michael Georgy
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi launched an assault on the city of Misrata on Saturday, attempting to recapture the last town in the west of the country still in rebel hands.
Apparently unsettled by the uprisings against his 41-year rule that began just under a month ago, Gaddafi was initially slow to respond, but he has regained the initiative, ordering his troops onto the counter-offensive, crushing a revolt to the west of Tripoli and pushing back rebels in the east.
The only rebel outpost between the capital and the eastern front around the oil town of Ras Lanuf is Misrata, Libya's third largest city, with a population of some 300,000 people, around 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
"They are trying to get into Misrata, they are now 10 km away," said rebel spokesman Gemal by telephone. "We are hearing shelling. We have no choice but to fight."
"I can hear loud explosions," said a resident who would only give his name as Mohammad. "Everybody is rushing home, the shops have closed and the rebels are taking up positions."
It took a week of repeated assaults by government troops, backed by tanks and air power to finish off the uprising in Zawiyah, a much smaller town, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
While the death toll from the fighting in Zawiyah is unknown, much of Zawiyah was gutted and destroyed by the fighting, gaping holes blown by tank rounds and rockets through buildings around the main square. Gaddafi's forces bulldozed a cemetery where rebel fighters had been buried.
"BRACING FOR A MASSACRE"
Gaddafi's guns are now trained on Misrata.
"We are bracing for a massacre," said Mohammad Ahmed, a rebel fighter in Misrata. "We know it will happen and Misrata will be like Zawiyah, but we believe in God. We do not have the capabilities to fight Gaddafi and his forces. They have tanks and heavy weapons and we have our belief and trust in God."
Further east, Gaddafi's troops pushed insurgents out of Ras Lanuf on Saturday a day after carrying out an amphibious assault on the oil port and pitting tanks and jets against rebels armed with light weapons and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks.
Libya's flat desert terrain heavily favors the use of heavy armor and airpower. The Libyan army is also better trained and disciplined than the rag-tag, though enthusiastic, rebel force.
Libya's rebels have repeatedly called for foreign countries to impose a no-fly zone to stop air strikes on cities, while insisting they do not want military intervention on the ground.
But the Arab League, meeting on Saturday, was expected to follow the European Union, the United States and NATO and fall short of calling for a no-fly zone.
President Barack Obama said on Saturday the United States and its allies were "tightening the noose" on Muammar Gaddafi and said he had not taken any options off the table, a hint at military action. But there is little enthusiasm in Washington for enforcing a no-fly zone without United Nations' backing.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday also sidestepped a British and French call to draw up a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya. Instead, they called for a three-way summit with the African Union and the Arab League to further discuss the crisis.
The African Union, long courted by Gaddafi, has already said it is against foreign military intervention, but is to send delegation of the leaders South Africa, Uganda, Mauritania, Congo and Mali to Libya to try for a peaceful end to the war.
The Arab League is to discuss a no-fly at meeting in Cairo on Saturday, but any decision would have to overcome the probable objections from Syria and Algeria.
"The fighters here and the people of Misrata hold the international community responsible for the fall of Zawiyah and for all the deaths that happened. Gaddafi is responsible but they are partners in crime," Ahmed, the rebel fighter in Misrata said.
"They do not care for us. All they care for is the oil and it seems they are waiting to see who is going to win so that they can deal with them, whether it's Gaddafi or us. They do not want to burn their bridges with him. All they do is say they are assessing the situation. Why are they taking so long?"
(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Zawiyah, Mohammed Abbas in Brega, Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi, Mariam Karouny in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jon Boyle)