As France becomes the first country to recognise the Libyan rebels' Interim Governing Council, Qaddafi loyalists drove back rebel forces from Ras Lanuf in the east of Libya.
Libyan rebels score diplomatic victory as they fall back on the ground
RAS LANUF // Libya's oppositionbattled for military and diplomatic advantage against Muammar Qaddafi's regime today, winning official recognition from France but losing ground to government forces outside a strategically vital oil port.
The rebel forces are beating a retreat from Ras Lanuf, speeding back to opposition territory by the hundreds as Colonel Qaddafi's army pounds the town with artillery.
The opposition fighters are fleeing eastward in cars and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. One said government forces were raining rockets or tank shells on the city in what appeared to be preparation for a full-scale advance.
Shells fell near a hospital in the city and hit a series of residential buildings as Qaddafi loyalists' tanks moved further along Libya's main Mediterranean coastal road than they have been since the rebels seized most of the country's east.
An opposition fighter with a Kalashnikov rifle said he had fled the frontline outside Ras Lanuf to move deeper into the rebel-controlled east.
"We don't have any heavy weapons," he said. "There are people with heavier weapons."
Another opposition fighter in civilian clothes stood at a checkpoint inside the city and called for those with heavy weapons to head to the front.
France became the first country to formally recognise the rebels' newly created Interim Governing Council, saying it planned to exchange ambassadors after President Nicolas Sarkozy met two representatives of the group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman, said: "It breaks the ice. We expect Italy to do it, and we expect England to do it."
Germany said it froze billions in assets of the Libyan Central Bank and other state-run agencies. The US, UK, Switzerland, Austria and other countries have also frozen Colonel Qaddafi's assets. The German economy minister, Rainer Bruederle, said: "The brutal suppression of the Libyan freedom movement can now no longer be financed from funds that are in German banks."
Both sides in Libya are lobbying for support from Western countries as their leaders debate whether to protect the rebels from Qaddafi's air force by putting a no-fly zone over some or all of the country. Britain and France have backed the rebels' calls for a no-fly zone, but the Obama adminstration has expressed deep reservations about involvement in another conflict in the greater Middle East.
Nato said it had started round-the-clock surveillance of the air space over Libya, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a meeting of EU foreign ministers would discuss how to isolate the regime.
The Libyan government tried to stave off tough action, sending envoys to Egypt, Portugal and Greece.
The international Red Cross said dozens of civilians have been wounded or killed in recent days in grueling battles between Colonel Qaddafi's army and the opposition movement trying to oust him.
The fighting intensified on the main front line between the Mediterranean oil port of Ras Lanuf and the city of Bin Jawad, where the rebels appeared to be have established better supply lines, bringing heavy weapons such as multiple-rocket launcher trucks and small tanks to the battle.
Fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi around Ras Lanouf set two oil installations ablaze Wednesday and inflicted yet more damage on Libya's crippled energy industry.
In the west, Colonel Qaddafi claimed victory in recapturing Zawiya, the city closest to the capital that had fallen into opposition hands. Western journalists based in Tripoli were taken late Wednesday to a stadium on the outskirts of Zawiya that was filled with Qaddafi loyalists waving green flags and launching fireworks. Libyan TV cameras filmed the celebrations as food, drinks and cooking oil were distributed.
Government escorts refused journalists' requests to visit the city's main square.; phone lines there have not been working during a deadly, six-day siege.
The Red Cross president Jakob Kellenberger said local doctors over the past few days saw a sharp increase in casualties arriving at hospitals in Ajdabiya, in the rebel-held east, and Misrata, in government territory.
Both places saw heavy fighting and air strikes, he said.
Mr Kellenberger said 40 patients were treated for serious injuries in Misrata and 22 dead were taken there.
He said the Red Cross surgical team in Ajdabiya operated on 55 wounded over the past week and "civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence."
He said the aid organization is cut off from access in western areas including Tripoli but believes those are "even more severely affected by the fighting" than eastern rebel-held territories.
Two foreign correspondents have been missing since Sunday after traveling in the direction of Zawiya, their newspapers reported.
Britain's Guardian newspaper said its veteran correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was last in touch through a third party Sunday from the outskirts of the city. He was travelling with Paris correspondent Andrei Netto of the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S Paulo, which said that until Sunday it had been receiving what it characterized as "indirect information" indicating Mr Netto was safe.
The Brazilian newspaper said it received information suggesting Mr Netto had been taken prisoner by Libyan government forces, and that a Libyan official said the information was "probably correct."
The Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, said the newspaper has been in contact with Libyan government officials in Tripoli and London and asked them to urgently help in the search for Mr Abdul-Ahad and to establish if he is in the custody of the authorities.
Mr Netto entered Libya on February 19 from the border with Tunisia and worked his way toward Zawiya, his newspaper said.
Brazil's government, its embassy in Libya, the Red Cross and other groups are trying to find out more about Mr Netto and to determine he is safe, the paper said.
The BBC staff said three of its staff were detained, beaten and subjected to mock executions by pro-regime soldiers in Libya while attempting to reach the western city of Zawiya.
The news organization said the crew, members of a BBC Arabic team, were detained on Monday by Qaddafi loyalists at a check point about 10 kilometres south of Zawiya.
Chris Cobb-Smith, a British journalist and part of the crew, said the group were moved between several locations, in some cases alongside civilian captives who had visible injuries from heavy beatings.