By Mohammed Abbas
TOBRUK, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's forces bombarded Libya's third largest city with artillery fire and advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Wednesday as diplomatic steps to prevent him quelling a revolt ran aground.
In Geneva, former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner berated the international community for its delay in imposing a no-fly zone, saying it was already too late to save lives.
"A no-fly zone is a minimum. It's certainly already too late," Kouchner said of the crackdown on the revolt, an increasingly vulnerable-looking uprising inspired by pro-democracy rebellions that toppled the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents.
"We've known since three weeks that the poor civil society, the poor people, are dying. And we are doing nothing," he told World Radio Switzerland.
In Benghazi, seat of the insurgents' provisional national council, the mood was a mixture of defiance and nervousness, with some citizens predicting a bloodbath and others confident the rebels would still snatch victory.
Italy, a potential base for a no-fly zone proposed by Britain and France, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting north African country.
"We cannot have war, the international community should not, does not want and cannot do it," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Rome.
A newspaper in Benghazi reported that a Russian-made MiG-36 aircraft, operated by the rebels, had bombed the airport at Al Kardabiya near Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Wednesday.
The Brnieq newspaper said the bombing raid was in retaliation for an attack by warplanes on Benghazi's airport. Libya's Jana state news agency quoted the director of Sirte airport as saying the report was "false and unfounded."
Both the rebel administration and the government in Tripoli have in the past few days put out information about military gains which has later turned out to be untrue.
But the rebels' position looked highly vulnerable after the government said its troops took control of the junction at Ajdabiyah, opening the way to Benghazi.
The Libyan army told residents of Benghazi to lay down their arms, and one of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, told Euronews TV that Libya's second largest city would fall whether or not there was a no-fly zone.
"Everything will be over in 48 hours," he said.
Saif, once seen as Libya's Western-friendly face, lashed out at President Nicolas Sarkozy for being the first foreign leader to condemn Gaddafi and back the rebel Libyan National Council, calling him a "clown."
He said Libya had contributed to Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign financing and demanded he return the money. Sarkozy's office denied that he had accepted any funding from Libya.
MISRATA: HEAVY BOMBARDMENTS
Libyan state television called on all loyalist forces in the east to join the government advance toward Benghazi.
Aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres said the violence had forced it to withdraw its staff from Benghazi and begin moving teams to Alexandria in Egypt.
Residents in Misrata, the country's third largest city 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, Gaddafi's stronghold, said his forces attacked the rebel-held city with tanks and artillery.
The shelling killed at least five people and wounded 11, a doctor at Misrata hospital said by telephone.
"Very heavy bombardments are taking place now from three sides. They are using heavy weapons including tanks and artillery ... They have yet to enter the town," said one resident, called Mohammed, by telephone.
Foreign powers have condemned Gaddafi's crackdown but show little appetite for action to support the revolt. A Gaddafi victory and the suppression of protests in Bahrain could turn the tide in the region against pro-democracy movements.
GADDAFI CHALLENGES WEST
A meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers in Paris this week failed to get the agreement France was hoping for to support a no-fly zone being imposed over Libya, an issue that has also divided the U.N. Security Council.
Supporters of a no-fly zone to halt Libyan government air strikes on rebels circulated a draft resolution at the council on Tuesday that would authorize one, but other states said questions remained.
NATO has set three conditions for it to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya: regional support, proof its help is needed and a Security Council resolution.
An Arab League call for a no-fly zone satisfies the first condition, but with access to most of Libya barred by Gaddafi's security forces, hard evidence that NATO intervention is needed to avert atrocities or a humanitarian disaster is scarce.
Growing numbers of Libyans are now crossing into Egypt fleeing Gaddafi's advance, the U.N. refugee agency said.
In a televised speech, Gaddafi taunted Western countries that have backed the imposition of a no-fly zone to come and get him. "You want to strike us? Come and give it a try," he said.
In an interview with the Italian daily Il Giornale published on Tuesday, Gaddafi said that if western forces attacked Libya, he would ally with al Qaeda "and declare holy war."
In Benghazi, where the revolt began in mid-February, residents said they had found leaflets lying in the city streets suggesting that if they gave up the fight against Gaddafi now, they would not be harmed or punished.
The leaflest accused rebels of being driven by al Qaeda and high on drugs, a charge routinely leveled by the government against the unprecedented uprising.
Salah Ben-Saud, a retired undersecretary at the Agriculture Ministry, said in Benghazi that life in the town was normal and "pro-Gaddafi people have not really shown their face."
"There were rumors that he (Gaddafi) would try to take back Benghazi and that made people a bit nervous, but he didn't and people here don't think he would succeed anyway if he tried."
Thousands gathered in a square in Benghazi on Tuesday evening denouncing Gaddafi as a tyrant and throwing shoes and other objects at his image projected upside down on a wall.
(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 William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)