FORCES loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi launched a second attack on the western town of Zawiyah yesterday after rebels drove back a heavy morning offensive in the most intense clashes of the uprising so far.
Bodies and smouldering rubble littered the streets, as tanks fired shells and rolled towards the centre of a city that has been under siege for two days. Dozens were reportedly killed in the street-by-street fighting.
In the east of the country, an air force jet crashed into the desert near the oil port of Ras Lanuf. Jubilant rebels celebrated near the wreckage, which contained the pilot's headless body. It was not immediately clear whether the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 had been shot down by the rebels, as they claimed.
The battle for Zawiya, just 30 miles from Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold, has become the bloodiest showdown in a rebellion that, this weekend, turned into a full-scale civil war.
Residents described at least 20 tanks rolling towards rebel positions and said that pro-regime militia and mercenaries stormed buildings and killed people inside to secure roof-tops for snipers. The city echoed to the sound of gunfire.
"The fighting has intensified and the tanks are shelling everything," said one resident. "They have shelled houses. Now they are shelling a mosque. We can't rescue anyone because the shelling is so heavy."
It was the second attempt by Col Gaddafi's forces to win back control of Zawiya in a matter of hours -- an indication of the importance he places on a city so close to the capital.
Yesterday's assault by pro-Gaddafi forces on Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 50km west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack using mortar shells and machine guns.
The fighting sparked several fires, sending a cloud of heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers were shooting at anybody on the streets, including residents who ventured out onto their balconies.
Youssef Shagan, a rebel spokesman, said that anti-Gaddafi forces captured three armoured personnel carriers and two tanks in the fierce morning clashes.
"Troops are on the west side, the east side and the south side, so anything could happen really," a man who gave his name only as Tarik said. "No supplies are now entering Zawiya, so I would say we have another five days of supplies."
Another anti-Gaddafi rebel said they would fight to the last man. "Gaddafi will never enter this city," he insisted. "He will never set foot here. The only way for him to enter the city is when we are all dead. He has to kill us all to control this city."
A doctor said that at least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in the morning fighting, bringing the city's death toll to 60 in the past two days. "I look around and all I see is destruction," he said.
The rebel forces that control eastern Libya consolidated their grip on Ras Lanuf, which fell on Friday, and said they had pushed west to take control of Bin Jawad, 325 miles east of Tripoli. Both sides were preparing for a bloody battle for Col Gaddafi's heavily-fortified home town of Sirt, 100 miles west of rebel frontlines.
The National Libyan Council, based in the rebel "capital" of Benghazi, named a "crisis committee", which included a head of military affairs and one for foreign affairs.