TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's forces battled poorly armed rebels Tuesday for control of towns near the capital, trying to create a buffer zone around his seat of power. The increasingly violent clashes threatened to transform the 15-day popular rebellion in Libya into a drawn-out civil war.
Rebel leaders in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, said they were seriously considering asking Western nations to use warplanes to strike some of Gadhafi's key military assets in an effort to topple him. The leaders also said a no-fly zone should be considered. But U.S. military officials said the rebels have not yet asked them for help, and they played down the likelihood of the United States setting up a no-fly zone.
Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years, has lost control of the eastern half of the country but still holds Tripoli and other nearby cities. His regime has retaken at least two towns and threatened a third, while rebels repulsed attacks on three other key areas — Misrata to the east of Tripoli, Zawiya to the west, and the mountain town of Zintan to the south, according to witnesses.
One of those retaken was the strategic mountain town of Gharyan, the largest in the Nafusa Mountains, which overlooks Tripoli, a resident said. Gadhafi supporters also have said they were in control of the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli.
In Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital, witnesses said six hours of overnight gunbattles failed to dislodge anti-Gadhafi forces who control the city.
In Misrata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, pro-Gadhafi troops who control part of an air base on the city's outskirts tried to advance Monday. But they were repulsed by opposition forces, who included residents with automatic weapons and defected army units allied with them, one of the opposition fighters said.
Residents said that in another town held by the opposition, Zintan, 75 miles south of Tripoli, pro-Gadhafi forces were repelled Monday night. But, they added, Gadhafi's loyalists were bringing in reinforcements.
With fears high that Gadhafi could use airstrikes against his own people, the European Union and the United States have raised the possibility of a no-fly zone over Libya — a tactic used successfully in northern Iraq and Bosnia.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the idea "superfluous" and said world powers must instead focus on fully using the sanctions the U.N. Security Council approved over the weekend. Russia is a veto-wielding member of the Security Council.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, meanwhile, urged Gadhafi to consider exile, saying she's worried the African nation could plummet into a "humanitarian disaster."
"It's important that he get off the stage," Rice said on CBS's Early Show.
More than 140,000 people have streamed into Tunisia and Egypt, and the situation at the Tunisian border has reached a "crisis point," with up to 75,000 people gathering in just nine days, said U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. Many have returned to their homes in Tunisia and Egypt.
But thousands of Vietnamese and Bangladeshis at the Libyan side of the border with Tunisia are "in urgent need of food, water and shelter," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for International Organization for Migration. Nepalese, Ghanaians and Nigerians are also sleeping unprotected at the borders, she added.
Thousands of foreigners — many of them Egyptians — have been stranded for at least a week at Tripoli's airport, where they have little food, no shelter and face mistreatment by Libyan authorities.
On Tuesday, Gadhafi's regime sought to show that it was the country's only legitimate authority and that it continued to feel compassion for areas in the east that fell under the control of its opponents.
A total of 18 trucks loaded with rice, flour, sugar and eggs left Tripoli for Benghazi, the country's second-largest city 620 miles east of the capital. Also in the convoy were two refrigerated cars carrying medical supplies.
Information from the New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.