Gaddafi forces, rebels engage in fierce battle

Cairo: Fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebels raged on Thursday in key towns of Misurata and Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition headquarters of Benghazi in Libya`s east, with the strongman promising a "decisive battle" amid mounting global pressure for a UN-sponsored no-fly zone.

Facing an unprecedented uprising against his 41-year-old rule, Muammar Gaddafi unleashed his forces to wrest back territories seized by the rebels.

Government troops intensified their offensive against rebels in Ajdabiya, the fall of which will clear the way for a possible attack on the opposition capital of Benghazi, amid reports that the town was heavily shelled by Gaddafi`s forces.

Rebels and government troops were also engaged in a fierce battle in another key city of Misurata, 150 km from the capital Tripoli.

"The battle continues at Misurata …, that will be the decisive battle," 68-year-old Gaddafi told a group of young people from Misurata.

"You are going to be called to take up arms and … you will take part in the battle," he was quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera.

Gaddafi urged the gathering "not to leave Misurata hostage in the hands of a handful of madmen".

His remarks came as the Libyan state television said the army would soon move against the rebel-stronghold of Benghazi.

As the defiant leader`s well-trained and heavily-armed forces registered major successes in recent days, a rebel spokesman in Misurata claimed yesterday that they had beaten back an attack by Libyan forces on the city, killing 80 of Gaddafi`s men.

At the UN headquarters in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya`s deputy envoy to the UN who had turned against Gaddafi, called on the Security Council to pass fast a resolution imposing a no-fly zone over the North African country.

As the 15-member body debated the draft resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, Dabbashi asked the world community to act quickly and warned of "genocide" in the eastern city of Ajdaibya and "ethnic cleaning" in villages in the western part of the country.

"We think that in the coming hours we will see real genocide in Ajdabiya," he said. "The international community has to act within the next ten hours."

Dabbashi also expressed confidence that the present draft resolution would be modified to include "air strikes."

The text of the draft resolution, co-authored by Britain and France, was circulated by Lebanon, a non-permanent member of the Council, on Tuesday.

Separately, the UN Security Council rejected a Russian proposal to pass a smaller resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya.

"We did come up with the idea of doing a brief but punchy ceasefire resolution," Russian envoy to the UN Vitaly Churkin said.

"I even offered to include some specific strong language directing the call for a ceasefire particularly to the Libyan authorities," he said, adding that the proposal was not meant to replace the no-fly zone resolution.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney expressed hope that the US-led international community would move quickly on Libya.

"We are very heartened by the strong statement from the Arab League (which is supporting a no-fly zone over Libya)," he said.

"We think it is vital for these kinds of actions to be international in nature, and in this region it is vital for the support of nations in region in order to make it clear that this is not the West or the US dictating an outcome in a country like Libya, but it is the international community that is making demands and taking action very much in concert with other Arab nations," Carney said.

Martin Nesirky, a spokesman of UN chief Ban Ki-moon, said the Secretary General was "gravely concerned" about signs that Gaddafi was preparing to attack Benghazi.

"A campaign to bombard such an urban centre would massively place civilian lives at risk," he was quoted as saying. "The Secretary General is urging all parties in this conflict to accept an immediate ceasefire and to abide by the Security Council resolution (passed last month imposing sanctions on the Libyan regime)."

Britain, France and Lebanon, on behalf of the Arab League, have been trying to overcome resistance at the UN Security Council to a no-fly zone.

Meanwhile, the New York Times said four of its reporters covering the clashes between forces loyal to Gaddafi and rebels have gone missing.

"We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists," said Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the paper.

According to UN estimates, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Libya in the uprising against Gaddafi which began on February 14.