TRIPOLI, Libya - Government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured a key oil port and pushed toward Muammar Qaddafi's hometown in a seesaw Saturday for both sides in the bloody battle for control of Libya.
With the Qaddafi regime's tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital "will be killed for sure," one rebel said after nightfall.
The rival successes - by Qaddafi's forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over the port of Ras Lanouf - signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.
Rebels in the east advanced from their eastern stronghold toward Sirte, setting the stage for fierce fighting with pro-Qaddafi forces who hold sway in the tribal area.
An eyewitness told al-Arabiya that a platoon of 30 tanks accompanied by 40 army jeeps entered the heart of Zawiya just before sunset, and all but one tank were chased out of the city; one tank commander was allegedly captured.
Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, with 25 tons of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.
The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Qaddafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed.
Qaddafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Qaddafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.
The storming of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Qaddafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.
"The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big," the rebel in Zawiya said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. The rebels vowed to keep up the fight in the city.
Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. Several fires sent heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers shot at anybody on the streets, including residents on balconies.
The rebels initially retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some ground, according to three residents and activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs' Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city's fringes, sealing off the city's entry and exit routes, the witnesses said. Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Qaddafi's sons who commands it, have been massed outside the city for days.
The pro-Qaddafi forces then blasted Zawiya with artillery and mortar fire in late afternoon before the tanks and troops on foot came in, firing at buildings and people, witnesses said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said "99 percent" of Zawiya is under government control.
"The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now," he said Saturday at a news conference. "We hope by tomorrow morning, life will be back to normal."
But, reports CBS News correspondent Alex Crawford, who is in Zawiya, the rebels have armed themselves, they have a number of weapons from the army. So they have equipped themselves with tanks, rocket propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns, which they are using to try and propel the attack but they appear to be able to stop them (Qaddafi forces) from advancing and they are getting closer and closer.
CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reporting from Tripoli said both sides have claimed to be in control of Zawiya, after a battle appears to have swept back and forth through the town. A government counterattack was reported this morning, but eyewitnesses say the rebels are still in control at a cost of dozens of lives.
The rebels have small arms and try to make up in enthusiasm what they lack in weaponry and experience. The government forces have heavier guns, and have proven stubborn to dislodge.
The rebels fared better in the east, capturing the key oil port of Ras Lanouf on Friday night in their first military victory in a potentially long and arduous westward march from the east of the country to Qaddafi's eastern stronghold of Tripoli.
Witnesses said Ras Lanouf, about 90 miles east of Sirte, fell to rebel hands on Friday night after a fierce battle with pro-regime forces who later fled.
"Go to Tripoli!" one of the fighters yelled in English.
Another brandished a bayonet, pointed to its blade and said: "I need head Qaddafi! Head Qaddafi I need!"
But in Tripoli itself, attempts at the sort of mass anti-government demonstrations that overturned regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have not worked here. Several hundred demonstrators were beaten back by Qaddafi's security forces after Friday prayers.
Phillips says the situation is still very much in flux, with the latest news being that the rebels are moving west along the road from Benghazi toward Tripoli.
Phillips says the key to the whole conflict involves whether or not the rebels can get government-armed units in Tripoli to come over to their side (as they did in Benghazi and further to the east). That has not happened yet, and with the close ties between those military units and members of the Qaddafi family, Phillips says, that is not a likely scenario.
A revolutionary council has set up in Benghazi and begun to act like the government.
The issue is that neither side really has the strength to cause the other one to submit.
So this is looking like a stalemate, Phillips says, and it could be weeks or months before there is a resolution.
An Associated Press reporter who arrived in Ras Lanouf Saturday morning saw Libya's red, black and green pre-Qaddafi monarchy flag, which has been adopted by the rebels, hoisted over the town's oil facilities.
One of the rebels, Ahmed al-Zawi, said the battle was won after Ras Lanouf residents joined the rebels.
Al-Zawi, who participated in the fighting, said 12 rebels were killed in the fighting, in which rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns were used.
Officials at a hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya, however, said only five rebels were killed and 31 wounded in the attack. The discrepancy in the figures could not immediately be explained.
"They just follow orders. After a little bit of fighting, they run away," said another rebel at Ras Lanouf, Borawi Saleh, an 11-year veteran of the army who is now an oil company employee.
A witness in Ajdabiya said rebels had begun their push toward Sirte, reaching the town of Nawfaliyah, 50 miles from Ras Lanouf. The witness said he was going to join them and expected fierce fighting with pro-Qaddafi forces.
Also Saturday, witnesses said a Libyan jet fighter crashed near Ras Lanouf. They were displaying pictures showing the pilot's body and twisted wreckage from the plane. The cause of Saturday's crash couldn't immediately be determined.
Pro-Qaddafi forces have launched a number of airstrikes against rebel targets as they seek to put down the 19-day-old rebellion.
In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, funerals were held for some of the 26 people killed in an explosion Friday at a large arms and ammunition depot outside town. The massive blast leveled flattened buildings, cars and trees in an area three times the size of a soccer field.
It also deprived the rebels of arms and ammunition. It was not immediately clear how the depot blew up, but suspicion immediately fell on Qaddafi agents.
Hundreds lined the streets to pay their respects to the dead before starting chants against Qaddafi.