Moammar Gadhafi's ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town 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 U.S. 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 Gadhafi 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 U.S. intelligence officer told the Associated Press 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.
Even as it advanced militarily, Gadhafi'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."
Gadhafi'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 neutralized Gadhafi's air force and pounded his army, but his ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organized than the opposition.
The shift in momentum back to the government's side is hardening a U.S. view that the poorly equipped opposition is probably incapable of prevailing without decisive Western intervention -- either an all-out U.S.-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 United States will be involved in Libya, the operation's costs and whether foreign countries will arm the rebels.
"No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "We're not ruling it out or ruling it in."
NATO is taking over control of the airstrikes, which began as a U.S.-led operation. Diplomats said they have given approval for the NATO operation's commander, Canadian Gen. Charles Bouchard, to announce a handover today.
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.
Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. troops would not be used on the ground in Libya. The statement allowed for wiggle room as the president explores options in case he decides to use covert action to ship arms to the rebels and train them. That would require a presidential finding.
Gadhafi's forces have adopted a new tactic in light of the pounding that airstrikes have given their tanks and armored vehicles, a senior U.S. intelligence official said. They've left some of those weapons behind in favor of a "gaggle" of "battle wagons": minivans, sedans and SUVs fitted with weapons, said the official.
. Rebel fighters also said Gadhafi's troops were increasingly using civilian vehicles in battle.
The official said airstrikes have degraded Gadhafi's forces since they were launched March 19, but the regime forces still outmatch those of the opposition "by far," and few members of Gadhafi's military have defected lately.
The disparity was obvious as government forces pushed back rebels about 100 miles in just two days. The rebels had been closing in on the strategic city of Sirte, Gadhafi'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.