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Gadhafi forces go on the offensive Add to ...

In a day of violent reversals, this was the old regime's ultimate show of bravado: Flag-waving supporters of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi drove through opposition-held towns all the way to the border of Tunisia, where they taunted opponents across the barbed wire and threw boxes of food and drinks over the border to refugees who were fleeing the very violence their forces had unleashed.

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Their message, delivered more forcefully in bombing attacks and infantry strikes through the night, was that the embattled leader's troops are no longer penned into an ever-shrinking circle of land around Tripoli, the capital. And the larger message was that the fall of Colonel Gadhafi will be a far lengthier and bloodier affair than anyone had previously thought.

Ushering a group of reporters across the border to watch loyalists wave flags and kiss photos of their leader on Wednesday morning, Gadhafi official Ataher Issa, who holds a position in the Economy Ministry but has become a regime spokesman, boasted that Col. Gadhafi's forces and mercenaries have won back large swathes of the country from activists and revolutionaries, who had seized towns throughout the east and west during a dramatic week of democracy protests and fighting.

"We have got everything under control, we have control of the roads and towns now, there are no problems at all moving around or running the country," he said. Those words marked a certain climax for the Gadhafi forces, who hours before had reclaimed the eastern cities of Brega and Ajdabiya, pushing ever closer to the rebel capital of Benghazi.

By the end of Wednesday, fortunes in the country's east had turned again as the revolutionaries and pro-Gadhafi forces fought a day-long battle with heavy artillery and assault rifles, ending with the opposition forces - a mix of defecting Libyan officers and armed activists - claiming control of the town. But government air strikes continued into the night, and there were widespread reports of heavily armed government troops on the move.

The most serious loss for the opposition occurred out of sight of the world's media in the highly populated west of Libya. There, Gadhafi forces moved the highly armed Khweldi tank and infantry brigade to the town of Sorman and placed an even larger brigade to the immediate west of Tripoli, surrounding the opposition-held city of Zawiyah, according to independent monitors and Libyans living in the cities.

This appears to leave the democracy forces in western Libya in a desperate and outmanoeuvred position, as they do not generally have access to the heavy-artillery resources of their comrades in the east.

Col. Gadhafi used this moment of resurgence to hold a two-hour victory speech before an audience of bused-in Western reporters at a Tripoli hotel. (It replaced the national congress, which was burned down in last week's demonstrations.) He denied having launched any forces against civilians but concluded by yelling that he would "fight to the last drop of blood," and that, if the West dared intervene to help the opposition, "thousands and thousands of Libyans would die."

The violence of fighting and the stubborn recalcitrance of the Gadhafi loyalists provoked urgent responses by Western leaders, who spent the day debating the opposition forces' request for United Nations-led air strikes against Libyan targets. Britain and the United States both said they were considering the creation of a no-fly zone under UN auspices.

The press of Libyan troops toward the western border did seem to provoke Tunisian authorities and international organizations to clear the terrible crush of refugees, as many as 10,000 of them, from the no-man's land between the countries' borders.

The UN High Commission for Refugees erected 1,000 eight-person tents overnight, raising the border refugee camp's capacity above 15,000 just as the daily flow of escapees began to drop below that number. Britain and France both sent emergency airlift planes to shuttle refugees - almost all of them contract workers benefiting from Libya's oil-fuelled boom - back to their home countries. Bangladeshis and many sub-Saharan Africans remained stranded.

This swift action avoided humiliation by the Gadhafi supporters, who arrived to an empty but litter-filled refugee holding pen.

But it was too late to avert a humanitarian catastrophe: The UNHCR announced Wednesday night that a young boy had died of exposure to cold the previous night while his family waited to be allowed across.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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