TOBRUK, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's forces struck the rebellion's heartland with airstrikes, missiles and artillery on Tuesday, trying for the first time to take back a city that serves as a crucial gateway for the band of fighters who threatened his four-decade hold on power. Rebels rushed to the front and sent up two rickety airplanes to bomb government ships, as mosques broadcast pleas for help defending the city.
The pro-Gadhafi forces surprised rebels with attacks on two sides of the city of Ajdabiya, and the opposition was outgunned as troops entered the city in tanks and personnel carriers.
"They don't have the arms, but they have the will to fight," Lt. Col. Mohammed Saber, an army officer who defected to the uprising, said by telephone as explosions and gunfire rattled in the background.
The assault on Ajdabiya in the east came after Gadhafi forces took back the last rebel town west of Tripoli. With the victory in Zwara, a seaside town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border, the regime has largely consolidated control in the west, where only weeks earlier his rule seemed to be crumbling. The only other opposition-held city in the western half was under a punishing blockade, its population running out of supplies.
The dramatic turn in Gadhafi's fortunes has outpaced French and British efforts to build support for a no-fly zone, which fell apart on Tuesday.
Saber and an activist confirmed the use of the warplanes against government ships, and the activist warned rebels would now use them to bomb "oil wells and oil sites."
The activist, who asked not to be named, said rebels procured a handful of "very old" warplanes weeks ago but did not want to use them, believing that Western powers, with Arab diplomatic support, would imopse a no-fly zone over Libya.
Gadhafi said he expects victory, telling the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that the rebels' options are closing. "There are only two possibilities: Surrender or run away."
He said he was not like the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders, who fell after anti-government protests. "I'm very different from them," he said. "People are on my side and give me strength."
Ajdabiya leads to the eastern half of the country, which the opposition has held since the uprising began on Feb. 15. If Gadhafi's troops are able to capture the city of 140,000, the way would be open from them to assault Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and effectively the opposition's capital, 140 miles (200 kilometers) away from Ajdabiya.
A Tuareg lieutenant from Mali who has fought for the Libyan government since 1993 said the government wants to retake Benghazi, but doesn't want to attack the city itself. He says the government will try to convince the residents of Benghazi to force militants out into the open desert.
"The idea is to surround Benghazi but to leave one exit open for the rebels," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal.
Ajdabiya is also a key supply point, with ammunition and weapons depots that rebels used in their previous advance toward Tripoli — now turned into a retreat. Until now, the Gadhafi forces' offensive toward the east has battled over two oil ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and Ajdabiya is the first heavily populated city in the area they have tried to retake.
Rebel spokesman Ahmed al-Zwei, among a group of fighters at Ajdabiya's western gate, said his comrades were hoping to try stall the government advance: "God willing, no, no, no, they will not reach Ajdabiya." Later, with the sounds of gunfire behind him, he said missiles were coming in from the sea and bombs were coming from warplanes above.
"Just now they hit a group of fighters. They are dead, wounded," he said in a harried phone call interrupted by shouting orders. Residents were fleeing to nearby villages.
"This isn't one or two planes. They are like a flock!" said a local activist, sounding panicked as explosions rang in the background.
Libyan state television claimed the battle was already won. The report said Gadhafi's troops were "completely in control of Ajdabiya and are cleansing it from armed gangs."
In Tripoli, hundreds of Gadhafi supporters celebrated in central Green Sqaure, blaring revolutionary songs, waving green flags and shooting in the air.
At the same time, Gadhafi forces were blockading Misrata, Libya's third largest city and the last major rebel holding in the western half of the country.
"We are short on antibiotics and surgery supplies and disposable equipment," said a doctor in the city. "We feel so, so, isolated here. We are pleading with the international community to help us in this very difficult time."
The doctor said naval ships in the Mediterranean port were blocking aid. Another resident said townspeople were relying on poor quality home-dug wells normally used to irrigate gardens. He said in many parts of town, the water network was cut, and trucks that traditionally supply rooftop tanks weren't able to enter Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested in a radio interview that events on the ground in Libya have already outpaced diplomatic efforts. A final communique after a two-day meeting in Paris of G-8 foreign ministers warned of "dire consequences" if Gadhafi did not honor the Libyan people's claim to basic rights, freedom of expression, and representative government, but top diplomats from some of the world's biggest powers deferred to the U.N. Security Council to take action.
"If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn't have happened," Juppe told Europe-1 radio. "But that's the past."
Hadid reported from Cairo. Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.