TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's snipers and tanks are terrorizing civilians in the coastal city of Misrata, and the U.S. military said Tuesday it was "considering all options" in response to dire conditions there that have left people cowering in darkened homes and scrounging for food and rainwater.
Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on military targets. But conditions have deteriorated sharply in Misrata, the last major city in western Libya held by the rebel force trying to end Gadhafi's four-decade rule. Residents of the city 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, say shelling and sniper attacks are unrelenting. A doctor said tanks opened fire on a peaceful protest on Monday.
"The number of dead are too many for our hospital to handle," said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if the city falls to Gadhafi's troops. As for food, he said, "We share what we find and if we don't find anything, which happens, we don't know what to do."
Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi's forces are strong enough to hold Misrata or Ajdabiya, a key city in the east that is also a daily battleground. But the airstrikes and missiles that are the weapons of choice for international forces may be of limited use.
"When there's fighting in urban areas and combatants are mixing and mingling with civilians, the options are vastly reduced," said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch. "I can imagine the pressures and desires to protect civilians in Misrata and Ajdabiya are bumping up against the concerns about causing harms to the civilians you seek to protect."
It is all but impossible to verify accounts within the two cities, which have limited communications and are now blocked to rights monitors such as the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the force — with more enthusiasm than discipline — has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gadhafi's air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.
Despite the U.S. fears for Misrata, the Obama administration is eager relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition. With NATO divided, France on Tuesday proposed the creation of a political steering committee to run the operation. If accepted, the committee's job might be to bring order to what some observers has said seems a chaotic effort by countries with differing objectives.
Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east, has been under fought over for a week. Outside the city, a ragtag band of hundreds of fighters milled about on Tuesday, clutching mortars, grenades and assault rifles. Some wore khaki fatigues. One man sported a bright white studded belt.
Some men clambered up power lines in the rolling sand dunes of the desert, squinting as they tried to see Gadhafi's forces inside the city. The group periodically came under artillery attacks, some men scattering and others holding their ground.
"Gadhafi is killing civilians inside Ajdabiya," said Khaled Hamid, who said he been in Gadhafi's forces but defected to the rebels.
Ahmed Buseifi, 32, said he was in Libya's special forces for nine years before joining the opposition. He said other rebellious special forces had entered Ajdabiya and Brega, another contested city, hoping to disrupt government supply lines. The airstrikes, he said, leveled the playing field.
"If not for the West we would not have been able to push forward," he said.
A U.S. fighter jet on a strike mission against a government missile site crashed overnight in eastern Libya. Both crewmen ejected safely as the aircraft spun from the sky during the third night of the U.S. and European air campaign.
The crash, which the U.S. attributed to mechanical failure, was the first major loss for the U.S. and European military air campaign.
By Tuesday afternoon, the plane's body was mostly burned to ash, with only the wings and tail fins intact. U.S. officials say both crew members were safe in American hands.
"I saw the plane spinning round and round as it came down," said Mahdi el-Amruni, who rushed to the crash site with other villagers, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside the rebel capital of Benghazi. "It was in flames. They died away, then it burst in to flames again."
One of the pilots parachuted into a rocky field and hid in a sheep pen on Hamid Moussa el-Amruni's family farm.
"We didn't think it was an American plane. We thought it was a Gadhafi plane. We started calling out to the pilot, but we only speak Arabic. We looked for him and found the parachute. A villager came who spoke English and he called out 'We are here, we are with the rebels' and then the man came out," Hamid Moussa el-Amruni said.
A second plane strafed the field where the pilot went down. Hamid Moussa el-Amruni himself was shot, suffered shrapnel wounds in his leg and back. He propped himself up with an old broomstick and said he bore no grudge, believing it was an accident.
The pilot left in a car with the Benghazi national council, taking with him the water and juice the family provided. They kept his helmet and parachute.
Since the uprising began on Feb. 15, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east of the country. Only a few of the army units that defected have actually joined in the fighting, as officers try to coordinate a force with often antiquated, limited equipment.
In Misrata, the doctor said rebel fighters were vastly outgunned.
"The fighters are using primitive tools like swords, sticks and anything they get from the Gadhafi mercenaries," he said.
Mokhtar Ali, a Libyan dissident in exile who is still in touch which his family in Misrata, said rooftop snipers target anyone on the street, and residents trapped inside have no idea who has been killed.
"People live in total darkness in terms of communications and electricity," Ali said. "Residents live on canned food and rainwater tanks."
U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear said intelligence confirmed that Gadhafi's forces were attacking civilians in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, and said the international coalition was "considering all options" there. He did not elaborate, but Misrata is one of the cities that President Barack Obama has demanded that Gadhafi forces evacuate.
Airstrikes overnight into Tuesday hit a military port in Tripoli, destroying equipment warehouses and trucks loaded with rocket launchers. Col. Abdel-Baset Ali, operations officer in the port, said the strikes caused millions of dollars in losses, but no human casualties
But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi's troops from attacking rebel cities — in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians — the United States has so far been reluctant to go beyond that. The Libyan leader was a target of American air attacks in 1986.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action.
Two dozen more Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from U.S. and British submarines, a defense official said earlier in the day. Locklear, the on-scene commander, didn't give details but confirmed that brought to 161 the number of Tomahawk strikes aimed at disabling Libyan command and control facilities, air defenses and other targets since the operation started Saturday.
Locklear said the additional strikes had expanded the area covered by the no-fly zone.
In a joint statement to Gadhafi late Friday, the United States, Britain and France called on him to end his troops' advance toward Benghazi and pull them out of the cities of Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zawiya.
Locklear said the coalition is "considering all options" but didn't elaborate. Asked if international forces were stepping up strikes on Gadhafi ground troops, Locklear said that as the "capability of the coalition" grows, it will be able to do more missions aimed at ground troops who are not complying with the U.N. resolution to protect those seeking Gadhafi's ouster.
Lucas reported from Ajdabiya, Libya. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo; Robert Burns and Pauline Jelinek in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.