BREGA, Libya — Rebel fighters pushed back into this hard-fought oil town on Monday, seizing half of Brega and pledging to drive out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces in hours in an advance that would open a vital conduit for oil sales by the oppostion.
Control of Brega's small refinery and Mediterranean port could significantly boost the rebels' hunt for revenues they can use to purchase heavy weapons for the fight against Gadhafi's better-equipped troops and militiamen.
Lightly armed and loosely organized opposition forces have surged into and beyond Brega several times in recent weeks from their strongholds in eastern Libya, only to be driven out by Gadhafi loyalists exploiting the rebels' inability to hold territory. In recent days the opposition has placed the front lines under the control of former military men, creating a more disciplined advance against Gadhafi's forces.
"We're more organized now, and that's played a big role," said Salam Idrisi, 42, a rebel fighter.
The opposition advanced under artillery fire throughout the day and took the streets of New Brega, a largely residential section separated from the town's oil facilities by a stretch of highway and a university campus, where the rebels were battling Gadhafi fighters at close range.
"New Brega is under control of our forces and we are mopping up around the university," said Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a former member of Libya's air force who had a satellite phone and a GPS around his neck.
The rebels also saw success Monday in their efforts to establish an internationally recognized government in eastern Libya, forging tighter links with Britain and Italy, both potentially major markets for Libyan oil.
Italy offered diplomatic recognition to the Libyan opposition council, becoming the third country to do so after France and Qatar. The Italian foreign minister also said the CEO of energy company Eni had visited the rebels' de facto capital, Benghazi, with the aim of resuming oil ties.
Eni has extensive oil facilities in eastern Libya and was Libya's biggest gas exporter and oil producer before the uprising against Gadhafi split the country.
Rajab Sahnoun, a senior official with Arabian Gulf Oil Co., which runs an oil terminal in the eastern city of Tobruk, said the company was waiting for a Liberian tanker but was unsure when it would arrive. He did not say where the oil would be headed.
In Benghazi, opposition spokeswoman Iman Bughaigis declined to provide any information on oil tankers coming to Libya.
Bughaigis said a small group of regime forces attacked the rebel-held Misla oil field in southern Libya. She said she could not say whether the attack took place Sunday night or Monday morning, but added that only one small diesel storage tank had been damaged. She provided no other information.
Britain announced that it would supply communications equipment to the Libyan rebels, declining to say what kind. It denied that the gear was intended to help wage attacks against Gadhafi's forces.
The U.S. military, which initially led the U.N.-authorized air campaign against Libya, was pulling its warplanes from front-line missions and shifting to a support role in the conflict, officials said.
Under NATO's leadership, Britain, France and other allies will now provide the fighter jets for intercept and ground-attack missions that enforce a no-fly zone over the North African country, they said.
Of the popular uprisings across the Arab world inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt, the strife in Libya, which began Feb. 15, has been the most violent.Comment on this story
The rebels and forces loyal to Gadhafi, their leader for 42 years, have reached a stalemate, with a series of towns along one stretch of Mediterranean coastline passing back and forth multiple times between the two sides. Though the regime's forces are more powerful and plentiful, they have been unable to decisively defeat a poorly equipped and badly organized rebel force backed by international airstrikes that have kept the Gadhafi loyalists in check.
A military plane from Jordan landed in Benghazi on Monday carrying medical supplies. Jordanian Col. Aqab Abu Abu Windi, who arrived on the plane, said it contained seven and one half tons of medical supplies to help the Libyan people and promised, "This plane is just the beginning."
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, Alessandra Rizzo in Rome and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.