Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP Photo
BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebels in Libya's east pulled back Friday after a failed advance on an oil town, as embattled ruler Moammar Gadhafi called on his followers to strike back at NATO.
The front lines in the Libyan civil war have largely stagnated since the popular uprising seeking to oust Gadhafi broke out in February. Rebels control much of the country's east and pockets in the west. Gadhafi controls the rest from his stronghold in the capital Tripoli.
Broadcasting to a rally of thousands held Thursday in the town of al-Ajaylat near the Tunisian border, Gadhafi encouraged them to take up arms to attack the nation's enemies.
"Crashing waves of angry masses, rising to the challenge with high heads and loud voice saying we will never surrender. Smash NATO! We are courageous, we are mujahideen!" said the Libyan leader, in an address also broadcast on national television.
The failed rebel attack on the strategic oil city of Brega came just before a key meeting in Istanbul over the future of Libya, with delegates from more than 30 countries discussing Friday how to end the conflict.
Senior U.S. officials have said the Obama administration is preparing to strengthen ties with the Transitional National Council once it presents detailed plans for a democratic government and as it becomes increasingly clear the Council will govern a post-Gadhafi Libya.
Turkey, which is co-chairing Friday's meeting together with the United Arab Emirates, is calling for an immediate cease-fire and providing water, food and fuel to strife-torn cities.
It wants NATO to stop targeting ground forces to prevent civilian casualties before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in August, HaberTurk television said Friday.
The attack on Brega, a key oil installation and long a rebel goal, may have been an attempt to strengthen the rebels' position ahead of talks.
Abdel-Hamid Badein, a rebel fighter, said the rebels had to withdraw to their previous positions after they were repulsed in Thursday's attack.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim condemned the attack and particularly what he alleged was NATO's close coordination with the rebels in violation of the alliance's U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
"It was a full scale attack and it was heavy and merciless," Ibrahim said. "We were successful in combating this attack and we did defeat both NATO and the rebels and we killed many rebel forces and captured a good number of them as well."
NATO is enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and hitting government targets as part of its U.N. mandate. It has rejected Libyan allegations that it is going beyond that mandate.
Associated Press reporters Ben Hubbard in Cairo and Paul Schemm in Tripoli contributed reporting.
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