BENGHAZI, Libya — Government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured the key oil port of Ras Lanouf and pushed toward Sirte, Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, in the bloody battle for control of Libya.
With the Gadhafi regime's tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital would be killed.
A correspondent for Sky News, the only foreign news organization in the city, reported seeing the militia fire on ambulances trying to remove the wounded from the streets. Sky News, a British satellite TV channel, had arrived early Friday morning before the violence began and Libyan security forces cut off the roads.
The reporter also said she had seen at least eight dead soldiers and five armored vehicles burning in the central square.
The rival successes — by Gadhafi's forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over Ras Lanouf — signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months.
A rebel force of civilians and military defectors armed with a hodgepodge of weapons, from tanks and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks, was moving along the main coastal highway of eastern Libya toward Sirte, witnesses said.
"The youth keep going west (toward Sirte). More are going every day," said Osama Orafee, a fighter stationed outside Ajdabiya, about 95 miles south of Benghazi, along the main highway skirting the Gulf of Sidra.
Several witnesses said anti-Gadhafi fighters had reached Bin Jawwad, a small town about two-thirds of the way to Sirte from Ras Lanouf.
The fight for Sirte was expected to be hard and bloody. Gadhafi is thought to have built up a hard-core following in and around the town, especially among members of his Gadhadhfa tribe, by lavishing the area with money and development projects funded by Libya's petroleum profits.
The government attacks on Zawiya on Saturday produced heavy casualties and at the same time raised puzzling questions about what strategy the government had in mind. For the second day in a row its forces battered the rebels, then pulled back to maintain a siege on the city from an impenetrable ring around the perimeter. Foreign journalists, who have been invited into the city of Tripoli, were unable to cross military checkpoints to evaluate reports of what Zawiya residents called a massacre.
Residents said they were unable to leave and visitors could not enter the city. A group of Western journalists trying to reach Zawiya, including correspondents for the Los Angeles Times and the BBC, were detained by the Libyan military.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said "99 percent" of Zawiya is under government control.
"The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now," he said Saturday at a news conference. "We hope by tomorrow morning, life will be back to normal."
In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, funerals were held for some of the 26 people killed in an explosion Friday at a large arms and ammunition depot outside town. The massive blast flattened buildings, cars and trees in an area three times the size of a soccer field.
Hundreds lined the streets to pay their respects to the dead before starting chants against Gadhafi.
The rebels' leadership council in Benghazi sought to instill some coordination and discipline on the largely leaderless uprising, naming a three-member crisis committee to oversee military and foreign affairs. It also called on the United States to impose a no-fly zone on the North African country to keep Gadhafi's air force on the ground, a move the Obama administration is considering.
Meanwhile, two U.S. Air Force C-130 transport planes flew from the Tunisian town of Djerba to Cairo with 132 Egyptians who fled Libya's burgeoning civil war, according to State Department spokesman P.J Crowley.
The flights were the first since President Barack Obama on Thursday directed U.S. humanitarian flights to help repatriate tens of thousands of foreign workers who have been stuck for days at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with little food and water, poor hygienic conditions, and no way home.
The United Nations has also imposed sanctions against the Gadhafi regime and the International Criminal Court is investigating Gadhafi, several of his sons and top aides for war crimes.
This report includes information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.