RAS LANOUF, Libya — Repeated airstrikes by Libyan warplanes on Monday illustrated the edge Moammar Gadhafi holds in his fight against rebel forces marching toward the capital: He controls the air.
After pleading from the uprising's leaders, Britain and France began drafting a U.N. resolution for a no-fly zone in Libya that could balance the scales.
President Barack Obama warned that the United States and its NATO allies are still considering military options to stop what he called "unacceptable" violence by Gadhafi's regime. NATO decided to boost flights of AWACs surveillance planes over Libya from 10 to 24 hours a day, said the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder.
Libyan warplanes launched multiple airstrikes Monday on opposition fighters regrouping at the oil port of Ras Lanouf on the Mediterranean coast a day after they were driven back by a heavy government counteroffensive aimed at stopping the rebel drive toward Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold.
The rebels oppose any Western ground troops deploying in Libya, but they're pressing for a no-fly zone to relieve them of the threat from the air. The rebels can take on "the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi's air force," said Ali Suleiman, a rebel fighter at Ras Lanouf.
Arab gulf countries joined the calls for a no-fly zone. Still, Western military intervention does not seem imminent — and the warnings may be an attempt to intimidate Gadhafi with words before deeds. British and French officials said the no-fly resolution was being drawn up as a contingency and it has not been decided whether to put it before the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds veto power and has rejected such a move. Western officials have said a no-fly zone does not require a U.N. mandate, but they would prefer to have one.
In the battles over the weekend, Gahdafi's forces unleashed their strongest use of airpower yet in the nearly 3-week-old uprising. A powerful assault by warplanes, helicopter gunships and heavy barrages of artillery, rockets and tank fire drove the opposition forces out of the town of Bin Jawwad, 375 miles east of the capital.
The counteroffensive blunted what had been a steady advance by a force of 500 to 1,000 rebel fighters pushing down the coastal highway along the Mediterranean Sea west toward Tripoli. The rebels were forced back to Ras Lanouf, 40 miles to the east.
The fighting appears to have shut down oil operations at Ras Lanouf and the larger nearby oil port of Brega, which were already operating at minimal capacity. Ahmed Jerksi, an oil official at Brega, said that port had stopped working the past few days because all the personnel had fled. He and Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, said they believed Ras Lanouf had stopped as well.
The fighting in Libya, which produces nearly 2 percent of the world's oil and delivers most of it to Europe, continued to push oil prices higher. Traders are worried the strife may spread to other oil-rich nations. Crude prices settled at $105.44 on Monday. They peaked earlier in the day at $106.98 per barrel, the highest since Sept. 26, 2008.