The Libyan conflict dramatically reversed course again yesterday as outgunned rebel fighters fled territory they had recaptured only five days ago.
A barrage of Qaddafi loyalist artillery, tanks and heavy weapons forced the rebels out of the oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega and pushed them back 200km to the strategic town of Ajdabiya, gateway to their stronghold, Benghazi.
On Tuesday they had been only 100km from Sirte, Col Qaddafi's birthplace and regime stronghold.
Opposition spokesmen talked of a "tactical retreat" but many rebels expressed confusion and anger at the two-day absence of the UN-backed air support that had made their earlier gains possible.
The hiatus coincided with a conference in London to discuss Libya's future and the Nato alliance assuming command of international military operations in the country.
"Why aren't they bombing? We've heard things like Sarkozy is backing out of this situation," said Abdullah Shwahdi, a 25-year-old fighter.
It was unclear last night whether air strikes were continuing. A Nato spokesman aboard the USS Mount Whitney said the joint task force was "still supporting the civilians on the ground via sorties".
And later yesterday there were reports of an air strike about 10km west of Ajdabiya, which sent a plume of smoke into the sky and brought cries of jubilation and relief from the rebel fighters.
Nevertheless, the renewed military setbacks highlighted the rebels' continuing weaknesses in weaponry and discipline and re-ignited international concern over a standoff and prolonged international involvement.
The leaders of the three countries spearheading the intervention - the US, France and Britain - have refused to rule out arming the rebels, but there is widespread international resistance to allowing weapons into Libya. Russia and China both repeated yesterday that doing so would breach the UN arms embargo and Turkey, a key member of Nato, is also opposed.
Even in countries that favour a more interventionist approach there is concern over arming unknown rebel factions that may turn out to have anti-western agendas or ties with al Qa'eda.
Anwar al Awlaki, the Yemen-based American al Qa'eda preacher, praised the uprisings in the Arab world in an online article that appeared on Tuesday. "In Libya, no matter how bad the situation gets and no matter how pro-Western or oppressive the next government proves to be, we do not see it possible for the world to produce another lunatic of the same calibre of the Colonel," he wrote.
Libya's opposition Transitional National Council, based in Benghazi, signalled that it was seeking weapons from "friendly nations", without specifying which ones. Council spokesman Mustafa Ghuriani said on Tuesday that "it would be naive to think we are not arming ourselves".
One 27-year-old guerrilla, Younus Abdelghaim, who was falling back on Ajdabiya, said yesterday: "We want two things: that the planes drop bombs on Qaddafi's tanks and heavy artillery, and that they give us weapons so we can fight."
Nato's takeover of command of the international military operation from the loose coalition of countries involved until now caused concern among the rebels.
Several countries, again including Turkey, the alliance's only majority Muslim member, and Germany, have objected to the intense attacks against Col Qaddafi's ground forces that made possible the rebel advances over the weekend. They insist that Nato should limit itself to implementing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo that were mandated by the UN and they advocate a narrower interpretation of the clause that authorises the protection of civilians.
The loss of Ras Lanuf and Brega yesterday was particularly damaging to the rebels, who had been hoping to use their control of the two towns to sell oil to finance their campaign.
Libya yesterday warned oil companies against signing contracts with the rebels. "The Libyan state will sue any party that seals deals regarding Libyan oil with parties other than the National Oil Corp," the government said.
Fighting was also continuing in the western town of Misurata, where opposition spokesmen said 18 people had been killed in the past few days. Western aid agencies said a blockade of the port by government forces had ended and aid was reaching the town.
After the meeting in London on Tuesday a newly formed international contact group is to meet soon in Qatar. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said the group would "provide leadership and overall political direction to the international effort, in close co-ordination with the UN, African Union, Arab League, Organisation of the Islamic Conference and European Union, to support Libya".