TOBRUK, Libya (AP) -- Moammar Gadhafi's military blasted rebels with airstrikes and bombardment from warships, tanks and artillery in an overwhelming display of firepower Tuesday, trying for the first time to take back a city in the opposition's heartland of eastern Libya. Rebel fighters rushed to the front as mosques in the city broadcast pleas for help defending the city.
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Rebels flocked to the entrances of Ajdabiya to fight after the pro-Gadhafi forces surprised them with attacks on two sides of the city. But the opposition was suffering from a lack of weapons.
"They don't have the arms, but they have the will to fight," Lt. Col. Mohammed Saber, an army officer who defected to the uprising, said by telephone, with explosions and gunfire audible in the background.
The assault on Ajdabiya in the east came after Gadhafi forces took back the last rebel town west of Tripoli. With the victory in Zwara, a seaside town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border, the regime has largely consolidated its control in the west, where only weeks earlier his rule seemed to be crumbling. The only other opposition-held city in the western half was under a punishing blockade, its population running out of supplies.
The dramatic turn in Gadhafi's fortunes has outpaced French and British efforts to build support for a no-fly zone, which seemed to fall apart on Tuesday in the face of German opposition and U.S. reluctance.
Gadhafi said he expects victory in the fight, telling the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that the rebels' options are closing. "There are only two possibilities: Surrender or run away."
He said he was not like the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders, who fell after anti-government protests. "I'm very different from them," he said. "People are on my side and give me strength."
Ajdabiya is a crucial gateway to the eastern half of the country, which the opposition has held since the uprising began on Feb. 15. If Gadhafi's troops are able to capture the city of 140,000, the way would be open from them to assault Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and effectively the opposition's capital, 140 miles (200 kilometers) away from Ajdabiya.
Ajdabiya is also a key supply point for the rebels, with ammunition and weapons depots that they used in their previous advance west toward Tripoli - now turned into a retreat. Until now, the Gadhafi forces' offensive toward the east has battled over two oil ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and Ajdabiya is the first heavily populated city in the area they have tried to retake.
Gadhafi's forces reached the outskirts of Ajdabiya on Tuesday afternoon, pounding the city entrance with long-range missiles, tank fire and airstrikes. Rebels in the city had heavily fortified the city's western entrance, expecting an attack from that direction - but they were surprised to find troops also attacking a southern entrance at the same time. Mosques broadcast calls on residents to go out to help defend the city amid chants of "Allahu akbar" or "God is great" from minarets.
Rebel spokesman Ahmed al-Zwei, among a group of fighters at Ajdabiya's western gate, said his comrades were hoping to try stall the government advance: "God willing, no, no, no, they will not reach Ajdabiya. God willing we can push them back." Later, with the sounds of gunfire behind him, he said missiles were coming in from the sea and bombs were coming from warplanes above.
"Just now they hit a group of fighters. They are dead, wounded," he said in a harried phone call interrupted by shouting orders. He claimed Gadhafi's forces hadn't yet entered the city. Residents were fleeing to nearby villages.
"This isn't one or two planes. They are like a flock!" said a local activist, sounding panicked as explosions rang in the background.
Airstrikes blasted the highways leading east and west out of the city, trying to isolate the rebels and cut off supplies. One bomb destroyed a rebel camp, the activist said.
Libyan state television claimed the battle was already won. The report said Gadhafi's troops were "completely in control of Ajdabiya and are cleansing it from armed gangs."
In Tripoli, hundreds of Gadhafi supporters celebrated in central Green Sqaure, blaring revolutionary songs, waving green flags and shooting in the air.
At the same time, Gadhafi forces were blockading Misrata, Libya's third largest city and the last major rebel holding in the western half of the country.
"We are short on antibiotics and surgery supplies and disposable equipment," said a doctor in the city. "We feel so, so, isolated here. We are pleading with the international community to help us in this very difficult time."
The doctor said naval ships in the Mediterranean port were blocking aid ships. Another resident said townspeople were relying on poor quality home-dug wells normally used to irrigate their gardens. He said in many parts of town, the water network was cut, and tankers that traditionally supply rooftop tanks weren't able to enter Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
In Paris, efforts for a no-fly zone had stalled and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested in a radio interview that events on the ground in Libya have already outpaced diplomatic efforts.
"If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn't have happened," Juppe told Europe-1 radio. "But that's the past."
The Obama administration on Monday held its first high-level talks with the Libyan opposition and introduced a liaison to deal full time with their ranks. It remained undecided about exactly how much support to lend a group it still knows little about while turmoil and uncertainty increase across the Arab world.
The rebel's main stronghold, Benghazi, remained firmly in their hands on Tuesday. A Tuareg lieutenant from Mali who has fought for the Libyan government since 1993 said the government wants to retake Benghazi, but doesn't want to attack the city itself. He says the government will try to convince the residents of Benghazi to force militants out.
"Everyone in Benghazi is still watching Libyan state television so the government will try to get its message across like this," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. "The idea is to surround Benghazi but to leave one exit open for the rebels. If we can get the rebels to leave the city then we will move troops in between them and the city and fight them in the open desert."