Ajdabiya: Muammar Gaddafi's ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town on Wednesday and moved within striking distance of another major eastern city, nearly reversing the gains rebels made since international airstrikes began.
Rebels pleaded for more help, while a US official said government forces are making themselves harder to target by using civilian "battle wagons" with makeshift armaments instead of tanks.
Western powers kept up the pressure to force Gaddafi out with new airstrikes in other parts of Libya, hints that they may arm the opposition and intense negotiations behind the scenes to find a country to give haven to Libya's leader of more than 40 years.
Also on Wednesday, an American official and former US intelligence officer said that CIA operatives were sent to Libya this month after the agency's station in the capital was forced to close. CIA officers also assisted in rescuing one of two crew members of an F-15E Strike Eagle that crashed, they said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Even as it advanced militarily, Gaddafi's regime suffered a blow to its inner circle with the apparent defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa. Koussa flew from Tunisia to an airport outside London and announced he was resigning from his post, according to a statement from the British government.
Moussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman in Tripoli, denied that the foreign minister has defected saying he was in London on a "diplomatic mission”.
It was not immediately possible to confirm either statement with Moussa or people close to him.
Gaddafi's justice and interior ministers resigned shortly after the uprising began last month, but Koussa would be the first high-profile resignation since the international air campaign began.
Airstrikes have neutralised Gaddafi's air force and pounded his Army, but his ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organised than the opposition.
The shift in momentum back to the government's side is hardening a US’ view that the poorly equipped opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention — either an all-out US-led military assault on regime forces or a decision to arm the rebels.
In Washington, congressional Republicans and Democrats peppered senior administration officials with questions about how long the US will be involved in Libya, the operation's costs and whether foreign countries will arm the rebels.
NATO is taking over control of the airstrikes, which began as a US-led operation. Diplomats said they have given approval for the NATO operation's commander, Canadian General Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover on Thursday.
Intelligence experts said the CIA operatives that were sent to Libya would have made contact with the opposition and assessed the rebel forces' strength and needs if Obama decided to arm them.
The New York Times reported that the CIA had sent in small groups of CIA operatives and that British operatives were directing airstrikes.
Gaddafi's forces have adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding that airstrikes have given their tanks and armoured vehicles, a senior US intelligence official said. They've left some of those weapons behind in favour of a "gaggle" of "battle wagons": minivans, sedans and SUVs fitted with weapons, said the official, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss sensitive US intelligence on the condition and capabilities of rebel and regime forces. Rebel fighters also said Gaddafi's troops were increasingly using civilian vehicles in battle.
The change not only makes it harder to distinguish Gaddafi's forces from the rebels, it also requires less logistical support, the official said.
The official said airstrikes have degraded Gaddafi's forces since they were launched on March 19, but the regime forces still outmatch those of the opposition "by far” and few members of Gaddafi's military have defected lately.
The disparity was obvious as government forces pushed back rebels about 100 miles (160 kilometres) in just two days. The rebels had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and a bastion of support for the longtime leader, but under heavy shelling they retreated from Bin Jawwad on Tuesday and from the oil port of Ras Lanouf on Wednesday.
Gaddafi's forces were shelling Brega, another important oil city east of Ras Lanouf. East of the city in Ajdabiya, where many rebels had regrouped, Colonel Abdullah Hadi said he expected the loyalists to enter Brega by Wednesday night.
"I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us," Hadi said.
The battlefield setbacks are hardening a US view that the opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention, a senior US intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Obama's director of national intelligence, James Clapper, compared the rebel forces to a "pick-up basketball team”.
Gaddafi's forces also have laid land mines in the eastern outskirts of Adjabiya, an area they held from March 17 until Saturday, when airstrikes drove them west, according to Human Rights Watch.
The New York-based group cited the electricity director for eastern Libya, Abdal Minam al-Shanti, who said two anti-personnel mines detonated when a truck ran over them, but no one was hurt. Al-Shanti said a civil defence team found and disarmed more than 50 mines in what Human Rights Watch described as a heavily travelled area.
NATO planes flew over the zone where the heaviest fighting was under way earlier Wednesday and a reporter at the scene heard explosions, but it was unclear whether any airstrikes hit the area.
First Published: Thursday, March 31, 2011, 10:35