RAS LANOUF, Libya
Moammar Gadhafi's forces hammered rebels with tanks and rockets, turning their rapid advance into a panicked retreat in an hourslong battle Tuesday. The fighting underscored the dilemma facing the United States and its allies in Libya: Rebels may be unable to oust Gadhafi militarily unless already contentious international airstrikes go even further in taking out his forces.
Opposition fighters pleaded for strikes as they fled the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, where artillery shells crashed thunderously. No such strikes were launched during the fighting, and some rebels shouted, "Sarkozy, where are you?" — a reference to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the strongest supporters of using air power against Gadhafi.
Reports overnight indicated that the rebels were in flight from Brega and Ras Lanouf, key cities east of Tripoli.
World leaders meeting in London agreed that Gadhafi should step down but have yet to decide what new pressure to put on him.
"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after the talks concluded.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it "has to be made very clear to Gadhafi: His time is over." But Germany and other countries have expressed reservations about the current military intervention in Libya, let alone expanding it.
France has struck a more forceful tone. Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told France-Inter radio that Paris and London believe that the campaign "must obtain more" than the end of shooting at civilians.
The rout of the rebels Tuesday illustrated how much they rely on international air power. Only a day earlier, they had been storming westward in hopes of taking Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and a bastion of his support in central Libya. They reached within 60 miles of the city before they were hit by the onslaught from Gadhafi's forces, driving them back east to Bin Jawwad under barrages of rocket and tank fire.
Many of the ragtag, untrained volunteers who make up the bulk of the rebel forces fled in a panicked scramble. However, some of them backed by special forces soldiers from military units that joined the rebellion took a stand in Bin Jawwad, bringing up truck-mounted rocket launchers of their own and returning fire.
The two sides traded salvos for hours, drilling Bin Jawwad's buildings with shrapnel and bullet holes. But by the afternoon, rebels fled farther east, their cars and trucks filling both lanes of the desert highway as they retreated to and even beyond the oil port of Ras Lanouf, roughly 25 miles away. Some loyalist forces had reached the outskirts of Ras Lanouf, where the thud of heavy weapons was heard and black smoke rose from buildings.
It was the second time in weeks that rebel forces have been driven back from an attempted assault on Sirte. The last time, it nearly meant the end of their movement: They retreated hundreds of miles west and Gadhafi forces nearly stormed their capital, Benghazi, until the United States and European strikes began March 19.
Even proponents of the international campaign have been wary of going further by effectively providing air cover for rebels who are now trying to go on the offensive and march through Gadhafi-controlled territory to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to end his more than 41 years in power.
With the possibility of a prolonged military deadlock looming, 40 foreign ministers, Clinton, the heads of NATO and the United Nations and representatives from the Arab League met in London to decide how to help Libya into a post-Gadhafi future.
British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged that "the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own. … We are all here in one united purpose, that is to help the Libyan people in their hour of need."
Clinton said the international community must support calls for democracy sweeping Libya and its neighbors but warned that "these goals are not easily achieved."
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini pushed a plan for a cease-fire, exile for Gadhafi and a framework for talks on Libya's future between tribal leaders and opposition figures.
As for the possibility of giving arms to the heavily outgunned rebels, Clinton said the United States has made no decision, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the subject did not come up at Tuesday's meeting.