LIBYA has descended into all-out civil war as forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi bombed a key opposition stronghold and launched ground attacks against another city.
In the worst day of fighting since the uprising began two weeks ago, a Libyan air force jet bombed Brega, south-east of the capital, Tripoli. At least 14 people were killed.
After the first round of bombing, rebel forces rushed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the outskirts of Brega to defend their positions.
In several hours of fighting the Gaddafi forces in tanks captured the university, oil refinery and airport but opposition forces regrouped and by the end of the day claimed to have forced the Gaddafi soldiers out of the town.
The battle came as Colonel Gaddafi warned “thousands” would die if the West intervened to support the uprising against him.
But the United States was a “long way” from deciding on whether to impose a no-fly zone, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as two US Navy ships steamed into position off Libya.
The 22-member Arab League appeared to offer an Arab and African alternative to western intervention, saying it would consider backing a no-fly zone with the African Union.
But it ruled out supporting any direct foreign military intervention in Libya.
The air force bombing of Brega was significant as over the last week Colonel Gaddafi has three times ordered air force pilots to bomb opposition strongholds but they had refused and either defected to Malta or ejected themselves and let their planes crash.
Gunfights continued through the day near Brega as Gaddafi forces pushed into the city in an attempt to gain control of a major oil facility.
Heavy fighting also occurred in Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, as troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi attempted to re-take the city.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said about 180,000 people had fled Libya over the last two weeks leading to a refugee crisis.
The intensified fighting came as both Colonel Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam made defiant speeches.
Colonel Gaddafi spoke for almost three hours and said he would not allow “armed gangs” to take control of the country.
Arriving at his speech in Tripoli in a golf buggy, he told the audience: “Libya will remain strong and resilient. We will put two fingers in their eyes with force, we will put two fingers in the eyes of whoever defies the Libyan people.”
Hi son Saif al-Islam, once regarded by the West as the moderate and modern face of Libya, told supporters: “There will be no change in Libya.”
He blamed the uprising on al-Qa’ida, drugs and “the mafia in Libya.”
Saif al-Islam has been heavily criticised internationally since he warned last week that “rivers of blood” would flow if protests continued.
The United Nations yesterday estimated that the death toll since the crisis began had now probably passed 1000.