Libyan rebels beat off a new assault by Moammar Gadhafi's forces on the besieged western city of Misrata, losing as many as 30 fighters but helped by more intense NATO air strikes.
As fighting raged on for the coastal town, where conditions are said to be desperate, a buoyant Col. Gadhafi made his first television appearance for five days and his troops engaged rebels in more fighting on the eastern front of the civil war.
Misrata is the last major rebel outpost in the west of Libya. Col. Gadhafi's forces appear bent on seizing the city and crucially its port, which some analysts say Col. Gadhafi needs if he is to survive a long conflict.
Rebel spokesman Mustafa Abdulrahman said by telephone Saturday's fighting centred on a road to Misrata port, where a Red Cross vessel brought in badly needed medical supplies earlier in the day.
Mr. Abdulrahman praised what he called a positive change from NATO, saying its aircraft carried out several air strikes on Col. Gadhafi's besieging forces. Rebels have complained for days that NATO is too slow to respond to government attacks.
A government-organised trip to Misrata revealed deserted streets and many heavily shelled buildings in the city's south. An official there said a NATO strike hit the outskirts and a warplane could be seen sweeping across the sky.
NATO aircraft hit 15 tanks near Misrata and two south of Brega in the east of the country on Friday and early Saturday, an alliance official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
NATO's commander of Libyan operations said the alliance, which took command of air strikes against Col. Gadhafi on March 31, had destroyed "a significant percentage" of his armoured forces and ammunition stockpiles east of Tripoli in the past 24 hours.
Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard also accused Col. Gadhafi's forces of using civilians as human shields, adding to similar charges made by other Western commanders.
"We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship," Lt.-Gen. Bouchard said in a statement on Saturday.
"Troops have also been observed hiding behind women and children. This type of behaviour violates the principles of international law and will not be tolerated."
Misrata, 200 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli, has been under siege by Col. Gadhafi's forces for weeks. Libya's third largest city, it rose up with other towns in mid-February.
"Today they (government troops) attacked Misrata on three fronts," a rebel who identified himself as Abdelsalem said by telephone. "Medical workers and rebels told me that at least 30 rebel fighters were killed in Misrata today."
A second rebel spokesman, Saadoun, said the day's rebel death toll was eight confirmed and 10 unconfirmed. Five rebels were killed in another government assault on Friday.
Rebels say people are crammed five families to a house in the few safe districts to escape weeks of sniper, mortar and rocket fire. There are severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies and hospitals are overflowing.
In Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi, who was last seen on television on April 4, was shown smiling and pumping his fists in the air at a school where he was welcomed ecstatically. Women ululated, one wept with emotion and pupils chanted anti-western slogans.
Wearing his trademark brown robes and dark glasses, Col. Gadhafi looked confident and relaxed, confirming the impression among analysts that his administration has emerged from a period of paralysis and is hunkering down for a long campaign.
Col. Gadhafi's military have pushed back a rebel advance in the east, and inconclusive battles have been fought along the desert road between the Mediterranean oil port of Brega and Ajdabiyah, gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, for over a week.
Rebels had said they had intended to take Brega and some had penetrated the outskirts. But their assault seemed to have petered out by nightfall, following a familiar pattern.
Rebels reject talks
Abdullah Mutalib, 27, a rebel lying in a hospital bed in Ajdabiyah with a bullet wound in his side, told Reuters: "Some of us got inside Brega to the university, some got to the outskirts. Then we came under rocket fire."
In a sign of rebel frustration, a NATO official said the alliance had intercepted what they assumed to be a rebel MIG 23 aircraft near Benghazi on Saturday and advised it to land, the first interception of a fighter aircraft since they began enforcing a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone over Libya last month.
Western officials have acknowledged that their air power will not be enough to help the rag-tag rebels overthrow Col. Gadhafi by force and they are now emphasising a political solution.
But a rebel spokesman rejected a negotiated outcome.
"There is no other solution than the military solution, because this dictator's language is annihilation, and people who speak this language only understand this language," spokesman Ahmad Bani told al Jazeera television.
Analysts predict a long, low-level conflict possibly leading to partition between east and west in the sprawling country.