BREGA, Libya — Libyan government forces on Tuesday unleashed a withering bombardment of the rebels outside the key oil town of Brega, pushing them back despite NATO reports that nearly a third of Moammar Gadhafi's heavy weapons have been destroyed.
The attack came on the same day that the International Criminal Court's lead prosecutor said it had evidence that Gadhafi's government planned to put down protests by killing civilians even before the uprising in Libya broke out.
"We have evidence that after the Tunisia and Egypt conflicts in January, people in the regime were planning how to control demonstrations inside Libya," ICC prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters. The ICC is based at The Hague, Netherlands.
"They were hiding that from people outside and they were planning how to manage the crowds ... the evidence we have is that the shooting of civilians was a pre-determined plan."
"The planning at the beginning was to use tear gas and (if that failed to work) ... shooting," he added.
In Libya, rebels managed to take part of Brega on Monday, aided by an international air campaign, but the rocket and artillery salvos unleashed on them Tuesday indicates the government's offensive capabilities remain very much intact.
"When you see this, the situation is very bad. We cannot match their weapons," said Kamal Mughrabi, 64, a retired soldier who joined the rebel army. "If the planes don't come back and hit them we'll have to keep pulling back."
Rebel attempts to fire rockets and mortars against the government forces were met with aggressive counter bombardments that sent many of the rebel forces scrambling back all the way to the town of Ajdabiya, dozens of miles away. There did not appear to be any immediate response from the international aircraft patrolling the skies that have aided the rebels in the past.
Early on Tuesday, however, there was an airstrike against a convoy of eight government vehicles advancing toward rebel positions, rebel officer Abdel-Basset Abibi said, citing surveillance teams.
Meanwhile, a tanker arrived at an east Libyan port on Tuesday to load the first crude cargo since unrest shut down exports in early March with mystery surrounding the potential buyer of oil from the rebel held territory.
The Liberian-registered tanker Equator, which can carry up to 1 million barrels of oil, arrived at Marsa el Hariga port.
An official with the vessel's Greek operators, Dynacom Tankers Management Ltd, declined to give details on the tanker.
The expected shipment will be the first in weeks since an uprising against Gadhafi halted exports, although it was unclear who had hired the vessel or its ultimate destination.
Trade sources said the buyer would likely keep a low profile given sanctions still in place against Libya and heavy fighting.
'Change from within'
The government has softened its public stance against any compromise that would end the fighting, but government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said any changes must be led by Gadhafi, who has ruled the country for more than four decades.
"We could have any political system, any changes — constitution, election, anything — but the leader has to lead this forward," he said late Monday in Tripoli.
He said Gadhafi, who took power in a 1969 coup, has no official position to relinquish but "has a symbolic significance for the Libyan people."
"Don't decide our future from abroad, give us a proposal for change from within," Ibrahim said, chastising Western powers who have a "personal problem with the leader" and economic interests they believe would be better served if Gadhafi's government collapsed.
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The comments were unlikely to appease the rebels fighting to oust the Libyan leader who has a legacy of brutality.
Any long-term settlement poses tough questions about the fate of Gadhafi's family and the new leader of a post-Gadhafi nation, and the opposition has rejected any solution that would involve one of his sons taking power.
The rebels also saw success Monday in their efforts to establish an internationally recognized government in eastern Libya, forging tighter links with Britain and Italy, both potentially major markets for Libyan oil.
Italy offered diplomatic recognition to the Libyan opposition council, becoming the third country to do so after France and Qatar.
Italy, a major investor in Libyan oil, also promised the rebels weapons and demanded that Gadhafi and his family, who previously enjoyed warm ties with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leave Libya.
"It rectifies a wrong," said Jalal el-Galal, a member of the rebel media committee in Benghazi. "Of course, Berlusconi is close to Gadhafi, but that doesn't mean that Italy is. It is important that Italy should take this step because of our natural ties."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.