Libyan rebels fled under fire from a key town in eastern Libya on Tuesday as world leaders convening in London insisted that Col. Moammar Gadhafi step down but offered no new suggestions for how to dislodge him from power.
The rebels' chaotic retreat from the town of Bin Jawwad, which they had captured from troops loyal to Gadhafi just two days earlier, reversed the momentum they had seized over the weekend and suggested that the ad hoc and lightly armed opposition force may have reached the limits of its capacity.
It was the fourth time Bin Jawwad has changed hands in less than three weeks, raising the specter of a prolonged stalemate along the coastal highway between the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to the east and Gadhafi's heavily garrisoned home town of Sirte to the west.
Although the 40 world leaders meeting in London pledged humanitarian aid and continued airstrikes to protect civilians, they indicated that it would be up to the Libyans themselves to force Gadhafi out, leaving it unclear how they were supposed to do so.
The question of whether to arm the rebels was not publicly discussed, nor was the question of how to release frozen Libyan assets to help fund them. But the leaders made it clear that the military campaign in Libya would not end until Gadhafi had gone.
"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters after the talks, indicating that the United States is pinning its hopes on defections from those around Gadhafi.
President Obama on Tuesday said he would not preclude the possibility of arming the rebels. Pressed on the issue in an interview with NBC News, Obama said, "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in.
"We are still making an assessment about what Gadhafi's forces are doing," Obama said.
In a series of interviews with the three major television networks, Obama emphasized that his decision to deploy U.S. forces in Libya should not be applied to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. He told NBC that his policy on Libya should not be construed as an "Obama doctrine" that can be applied in a "cookie-cutter fashion."
The strongest challenge to Gadhafi in London came from the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, a nation that has been a forthright Arab supporter of the Western-led military campaign in Libya. Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, the prime minister, warned "Gadhafi and his people to leave and not cause any more bloodshed."
Clinton and other leaders reiterated their conviction that the military campaign in Libya has already saved lives by reversing the advance of Gadhafi forces toward Benghazi.
"We have prevented a potential massacre, established a no-fly zone, stopped an advancing army, added more partners to this coalition and transferred command of the military effort to NATO," Clinton said.
Gadhafi has not been seen or heard from publicly in a week, but with his forces advancing east on the 11th day of airstrikes, no immediate pressure appeared on his government to abandon him.
News footage showed images of panicked rebels leaping into cars and pickup trucks and scrambling to leave Bin Jawwad as approaching Gadhafi forces pounded them with mortars and artillery. There were no reports of coalition airstrikes as the rebels withdrew.
Clinton, like Obama, did not discount the possibility of arming the rebels. She said she believed such a step would be legal under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force to protect the lives of Libyan civilians. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the subject had not been raised.
A senior Obama administration official said Chris Stevens, former U.S. envoy to Tripoli, will travel to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the coming days to establish better ties with the groups seeking to oust Gaddhafi. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that the move doesn't constitute formal recognition of the opposition.