Tripoli: Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and rebels seeking his downfall were on Thursday battling each other on the military and diplomatic fronts, as government shelling rocked the edge of a key oil town.
Western powers, meanwhile, were meeting in Brussels to mull military and economic options against Gaddafi, who unleashed his forces against rebels after they on February 15 launched an uprising against his four-decade hardline rule.
As fighting raged around Ras Lanuf, an eastern oil town, and Zawiyah, just west of Tripoli, Gaddafi sent emissaries to Egypt, Greece and Portugal, while members of the rebels` national council were due in Paris after lobbying the European Parliament.
Early Thursday, Gaddafi`s forces advanced closer towards rebel-held Ras Lanuf, firing shells and carrying out an air strike behind rebel lines, reports said.
Four shells exploded within minutes roughly a kilometre (less than a mile) from the residential compound in the town, close to where five or six columns of smoke earlier rose skywards.
Ambulances raced along the desert highway, away from the front in eastern Libya, back towards rebel-held towns further east and groups of rebels could also be seen moving back in the same direction.
Smoke still pluming out of an oil facility on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, where a series of massive explosions erupted into giant fire balls on Wednesday, but that live flames were no longer visible.
Roughly eight kilometres (five miles) east of Ras Lanuf, a Libyan fighter jet carried out an air strike that appeared to target rebel positions in the desert, a report said.
On Wednesday, an oil installation was also ablaze near As-Sidra 10 kilometres (six miles) further west of Ras Lanuf although National Oil Corp boss Shukri Ghanem played down its importance.
"Fortunately, the explosion ... was in a small storage supply facility in Sidra... It has not affected the production," Ghanem said, adding: "It was diesel, it`s not crude oil."
He acknowledged, however, that oil output was down more than two-thirds, as crude prices rose in Asian trade, with New York`s main contract, light sweet crude for April delivery, rising 46 cents to USD 104.84 per barrel.
Brent North Sea crude for April rose 26 cents to USD 116.20.
Dow Jones Newswires on Thursday quoted Barclays Capital analysts as saying the attacks on the storage tanks and other facilities in Ras Lanuf, "are perhaps more than merely symbolic”.
"In our opinion, they represent a final fading of any residual realistic hope that the outage of Libyan oil could prove to be anything other than prolonged," the analysts said.
Fighting in eastern Libya has killed at least 400 people and wounded 2,000 since February 17, medics there said.
In Zawiyah, the battle for control of the strategic oil city was undecided.
"The revolutionaries control the centre of Zawiyah and Gaddafi’s forces are surrounding it. It`s 50-50," a long-term Moroccan resident said after crossing the border into Tunisia.
"There was no one in the streets, the town is completely deserted, and there are snipers on the roofs," he said, adding that he did not know which side they were on.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said: "Zawiyah is under the control of the Army but there are still pockets of violence. There have been celebrations for hours."
But foreign journalists were unable to verify the government`s claims as they were again unable to access the city.