Moammar Gadhafi's forces overwhelmed rebels in the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya, hammering them with airstrikes, missiles, tanks and artillery Tuesday in an assault that sent residents fleeing and appeared to open the way for an all-out government offensive on the opposition's main stronghold in the east, Benghazi.
In desperation, rebels sent up two antiquated warplanes that struck a government ship bombarding Ajdabiya from the Mediterranean. But as tanks rolled into the city from two directions and rockets relentlessly pounded houses and shops, the ragtag opposition fighters' defenses appeared to break down.
Only 10 days ago, the rebellion was poised to march on Tripoli, the capital, and had appeared capable of sweeping Gadhafi out after 41 years in power, but the regime's better armed and organized military has reversed the tide.
Efforts led by France and Britain to create a no-fly zone to protect the rebels have gone nowhere, and some rebels lashed out at the West for failing to come to their aid.
Residents of the city of 140,000 streamed out, fleeing toward Benghazi, 140 miles northeast. But warplanes and artillery were striking roads in and out of Ajdabiya, several witnesses and fighters said. Some reported private cars had been hit, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.
Gadhafi warned rebels: "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 in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. "People are on my side and give me strength."
Late Tuesday, addressing selected supporters in Tripoli, Gadhafi called the rebels "rats" and blasted Western nations. "They want Libyan oil," he said.
Libyan state television aired calls for the opposition to stop fighting, apparently hoping to sway populations in the east away from supporting the rebels.
On Tuesday, top diplomats from some of the world's biggest powers deferred to the U.N. Security Council to take action against Libya, as France and Britain failed to win support for a no-fly zone in the face of German opposition and U.S. reluctance.
A U.N. resolution introduced Tuesday includes no-fly provisions. It also calls for increased enforcement of an arms embargo and freezing more Libyan assets, according to U.N. diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the text has not been released.
One diplomat said the Security Council will be looking to see whether members of the Arab League, which is pressing for the no-fly zone, are ready to seriously participate in the establishment and operation of a zone.