A U.S. defense official says U.S. ships and submarines unleashed a barrage of cruise missiles at Libyan missile storage facilities in the Tripoli area late Monday and early Tuesday, while strongman Muammar Qaddafi's troops sent rebels into a panicked flight from his hometown outside of the capital amid a lack of localized air support for the opposition.
The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military details, said 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the Mediterranean - the most in at least several days.
The latest barrage raised to well over 200 the number of Tomahawks that have been fired at Libya since the Western military intervention began March 19.
The bulk of U.S. and NATO missile and bomb attacks on Libya have targeted air defenses, ammunition bunkers and other facilities that support Libyan ground forces and enable NATO to maintain a no-fly zone over the country.
Meanwhile, rockets and tank fire from Qaddafi's forces sent Libya's rebels in a panicked scramble away from the front lines near Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, where coalition airstrikes against Qaddafi's troops had eased. The opposition was able to bring up truck-mounted rocket launchers of their own and return fire, but they went into full retreat after government shelling resumed.
The two sides traded salvos over the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, now pockmarked with shrapnel and small arms fire. Rockets and artillery shells crashed thunderously as plumes of smoke erupted in the town. The steady drum of heavy machine gun fire and the pop of small arms could be heard above the din as people less than a mile outside the village scaled mounds of dirt to watch the fighting.
"This today is a loss, but hopefully we'll get it back," said Mohammed Bujildein, a 27-year-old from Darna. He was gnawing on a loaf of bread in a pickup truck with a mounted anti-aircraft, waiting to fill up from an abandoned gas tanker truck on the eastern side of Ras Lanouf.
Even in Ras Lanouf, roughly 25 miles east of Bin Jawwad, there appeared to be shelling -- there were thuds in the distance and black smoke rising from buildings. Some rebels pushed farther east.
"If they keep shelling like this, we'll need airstrikes," Bujildein said. It makes it easier to go to Sirte. If there's air cover, we'll be in Sirte tomorrow evening."
World powers agreed Tuesday to consider further sanctions on Moammar Gadhafi's regime but did not discuss arming the rebels who are seeking to oust him, a top British diplomat said.
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Top diplomats from up to 40 countries met for crisis talks Tuesday in London on the future of the North African nation, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters the subject of arming rebels simply did not come up.
The rebels remain woefully outgunned by Qaddafi's forces, though they do show some improvements since their seige of Ajdabiya a week ago. They have more ammunition and heavy weapons that they've captured from government forces, and they are showing better efforts at using them. But it is still unclear how they can take the stronghold of Sirte without further aggressive international air support.