BREGA, Libya — Libyan government forces on Tuesday unleashed a withering bombardment of the rebels outside a key oil town pushing them back, even as the regime said Moammar Gadhafi might consider some reforms but would not stepping down.
The rebels managed to take part of the oil town of Brega the day before, aided by an international air campaign that has pounded Gadhafi's heavy weapons, but the rocket and artillery salvos unleashed on the rebels indicates the government's offensive capabilities remain very much intact.
"When you see this, the situation is very bad. We cannot match their weapons," said Kamal Mughrabi, 64, a retired soldier who joined the rebel army. "If the planes don't come back and hit them we'll have to keep pulling back."
Rebel attempts to fire rockets and mortars against the government forces were met with aggressive counter bombardments that sent many of the rebel forces scrambling back all the way to the town of Ajdabiya, dozens of miles (kilometers) away. There did not appear to be any immediate response from the international aircraft patrolling the skies that have aided the rebels in the past.
Early on Tuesday, however, there was an airstrike against a convoy of eight government vehicles advancing toward rebel positions, rebel officer Abdel-Bast Abibi said, citing surveillance teams. The strike hit two of the vehicles, prompting the others to turn around and race back into the city,
Rebel forces have been helped by the arrival on the front of more trained soldiers and heavier weapons, but they are still struggling to match the more experienced and better equipped government troops, even with the aid of airstrikes.
The government has softened its public stance against any compromise that would end the fighting, but government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late Monday that any changes must be led by Gadhafi, who has ruled the country for more than four decades.
"We could have any political system, any changes: constitution, election, anything, but the leader has to lead this forward," he said in Tripoli.
"Don't decide our future from abroad, give us a proposal for change from within," Ibrahim said, chastising Western powers who have a "personal problem with the leader" and economic interests they believe would be better served if Gadhafi's government collapsed.
The comments were unlikely to appease the rebels fighting to oust the Libyan leader who has a legacy of brutality. Any long-term settlement poses tough questions about the fate of Gadhafi's family and the new leader of a post-Gadhafi nation, and the opposition has rejected any solution that would involved one of his sons taking power.
The head of the African Union, meanwhile, voiced his support for Gadhafi, calling for the end to foreign interference into what he called an internal Libyan problem.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema 69-year-old president of Equatorial Guinea described Western military efforts to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya as a "so-called humanitarian intervention."
But elsewhere in the world, the rebels saw success 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 on Monday, becoming the third country to do so after France and Qatar.
Shipping data provider Lloyd's Intelligence, meanwhile, confirmed that a Greek-owned tanker is on its way to Libya pick up an oil shipment, the first in almost three weeks.
The delivery would be only a tiny fraction of Libya's pre-crisis exports of around 1.6 million barrels a day, but is viewed by analysts as a symbolic step forward.
The tanker, capable of carrying around 1 million barrels of crude oil, is currently off Port Said in Egypt and expected to arrive at the Libyan port of Marsa al-Hariga, near the eastern city of Tobruk, later in the day.
The conflict in Libya caused crude exports from the country, 17th among the world oil producers, to dwindle to a trickle, sparking a surge in global oil prices. Benchmark crude was trading at around $108 a barrel on Tuesday.
Gadhafi's British-educated son Seif al-Islam, on Tuesday, dismissed reports that his father's inner circle of advisers was crumbling following the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.
He said "of course" there would be defections among senior members of the regime because some of them are old and tired and "not young like us."
He also dismissed the idea that Koussa might have new information to offer British authorities about the Lockerbie bombing in which he was a key negotiator.
"The British and the Americans ... they know everything about Lockerbie so there are no secrets" Koussa can reveal, Seif said.
Al-Shalchi reported from Tripoli. Associated Press writers Jane Wardell and Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report form London.