RAS LANUF, Libya — Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi pounded opposition fighters with airstrikes, artillery and rockets Monday in a battle for control of the key eastern oil port of Ras Lanuf — a bid to stop the rebels' rapid advance toward the capital.
In Ras Lanuf, a warplane launched an airstrike on a car carrying a family and may have killed one or more of them, witnesses said.
Several witnesses said one man, possibly the father or grandfather, had died. Others said two children were badly wounded and one of those said two children died. It was not immediately possible to confirm any of the deaths.
Another airstrike, one of a series on the town on Monday, hit again shortly after the family car was struck. It sent a plume of smoke into the air and rebel fighters fired at a warplane overhead shouting, "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest).
Fighting was also renewed in the western city of Zawiya with tanks and artillery, Al-Jazeera reported.
Meanwhile, both Al-Jazeera and an Arab newspaper reported on Monday that Gadhafi had proposed to rebels a meeting with the country's parliament to pave the way for the leader to step down with certain guarantees. Both news outlets cited unnamed sources for the report.Video: Gadhafi strikes force rebels to regroup (on this page)
Sources later told Al-Jazeera that the rebel interim council rejected the offer because it would have amounted to an "honourable" exit for Gadhafi and would offend his victims.
According to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper website, Gadhafi was seeking assurances for his safety, that of his family, and his wealth. In addition, the sources said Gadhafi sought assistance in leaving the country and guarantees he would not be pursued internally or abroad, or brought to face international courts.
The largely inexperienced rebels lack their enemy's firepower and are in need of reinforcements from the east, Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, told The Associated Press. The rebels have no warplanes and rely mostly on heavy machineguns, anti-aircraft weapons and rocket propelled grenades. They travel by 4x4 pick-up trucks.
But their agility, often fairly chaotic at the front, has given them a degree of protection from Gadhafi's forces, who have proved more effective at quashing the rebellion in the west around the Libyan leader's Tripoli powerbase.
"The West needs to move or this crazy guy (Gadhafi) will do something to the oilfields. He is like a wounded wolf," Mustafa Gheriani, a media officer for the rebels in Benghazi, said, referring to rebel appeals for a no-fly zone. "If the West does not intervene with tactical air strikes he could put the oilfields out of commission for a long time."
The U.S. and its NATO allies are considering a military response to the violence in Libya, President Obama said Monday. Britain and France are drawing up elements of a UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya in the event that world leaders decided it was necessary. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned that any foreign military intervention would require international backing.
Also on Monday, the United Arab Emirates called for the U.N. Security Council to act to "protect" the Libyan people.
Rebels 'have no experience'
On an ill-defined and fast-moving front line, rebels braced for another attack on Ras Lanuf despite signs that Gadhafi's forces were reinforcing defenses.
Rebel raiding parties staged hit-and-run attacks to test the strength of their foes, who fired mortar rounds back.
A Libyan warplane screeched over the rebels in Ras Lanuf, sending them into a frenzy of firing at it. Looking on, one resident said: "I believe these youths are ready to die, but they won't make a difference. Look at the way they're firing at the plane. They have no experience."
A Reuters witness saw no more than 200 or so rebels in Ras Lanuf but it was not clear how many more were in the immediate surrounding area.
Rebels at checkpoints were more nervous than on previous days, saying families were fleeing Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad to escape fighting.
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"We are leaving simply because it will be safer," said the head of one family in a car stuffed with household belongings.
The rebels have proved ineffective in defending their gains, as seen in the hasty withdrawal from Bin Jawad after they had overrun the town.
"Many of the rebels are young, and they're just not used to war. That's why they ran back," rebel Ibrahim Zwei told Reuters.
The rebels had been buoyed by three straight victories over government forces as they moved west. They made their biggest gains without much of a fight shortly after protests erupted in mid-February, but their mettle has been tested the further they moved west.
Difficult days ahead
Rebels have been relying on the residents of government-held towns to rise up and join them, but this is likely to become harder as they move west into more affluent areas that have benefited from Gadhafi's rule.
Gadhafi has poured cash into Sirte, about 100 miles from Bin Jawad, and the city is expected to prove a formidable battleground. The Libyan leader, who was born nearby, has used the city for international conferences and to host VIP visitors.
Rebels have been careful to accuse mostly foreign mercenaries of fighting for Gadhafi, and are keen to highlight national unity and support for their cause. But many fighters, mostly youths in jeans and sneakers, said they were betrayed.
"We got calls from the people of Bin Jawad telling us to come through and that all was well. Then we were ambushed," said Hani Zwei. "I can't believe our own countrymen would do that."
Residents of Benghazi, Libya's second biggest city where the uprising started, said the euphoria of driving out Gadhafi's forces had started to wear off.
"After parties and celebrations, the people of Benghazi are now worrying about our people in the west," said Salah Ben-Saud, 75, a former undersecretary at the agricultureg ministry.
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Young people in Internet cafes were telling each other to be brave as there was no sign the government forces were giving up. "There is a fear he will retake the east," said the correspondent in the city.
'Somalia of N. Africa?'
The recent fighting appeared to signal the start of a new phase in the conflict, with Gadhafi's regime unleashing its air power on the rebel force trying to oust the ruler of 41 years. The uprising against Gadhafi, which began Feb. 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
On Monday, Gadhafi and his son Saif Gadhafi suggested that Libya plays a vital role in keeping the Mediterranean secure and that it is an important partner for the West in battling al-Qaida.
"Libya may become the Somalia of North Africa, of the Mediterranean," Saif Gadhafi told France24 in an interview. "You will see the pirates in Sicily, in Crete, in Lampedusa. You will see millions of illegal immigrants. The terror will be next your door."
Gadhafi has consistently denied the scope of the revolt and the number of casualties in the weeks-old revolt.
“There have been at most 150 to 200 people killed," Gadhafi told France24. "People should come here and see how many people have been killed. They can come and check among the population, and among the police and the army.”
Tight restrictions on media make it near impossible to get an accurate tally of the dead and wounded which is estimated to reach into the hundreds if not thousands. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia — another North African country in turmoil after an uprising in January that ousted its longtime leader.
The United Nations said more than one million people who are fleeing Libya or inside the country need humanitarian aid.
The U.N.'s aid coordinator Valerie Amos said that her first priority was Misrata, a rebel-held town of 300,000 which residents said had been attacked at the weekend by government forces with tanks and missiles that cut insurgents to shreds.
"Humanitarian organizations need urgent access now," said Amos. "People are injured and dying and need help immediately."
The turmoil is being felt more broadly still in the form of rising oil prices . Libya's oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.