Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi massed Thursday outside the city of Misurata — the last major rebel foothold in the west — apparently in preparation for an attack, as the rebels at both ends of the country’s coast battled to hold off the Qaddafi forces and their superior firepower.
Musa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Qaddafi government, confirmed that its forces were preparing to take Misurata just as they did Zawiyah, another western town that had been held by the rebels.
“It starts in the beginning by surrounding the city,” he said, “then moving slowly to avoid casualties.” Rebels in Zawiyah described heavy casualties — at least dozens — during the Qaddafi forces’ siege of that city.
“It should be finished up tomorrow if not today,” Mr. Ibrahim added.
Rebels in Misurata said that Qaddafi forces had so far appeared to hold back, though electricity, water and telecommunications remained severed a day after fighters held the town against an onslaught of tank and artillery fire.
After days of retreat, the rebels appeared to be fighting for time in the hope of obtaining some form of international military backing, which Western leaders now seem close to delivering. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, said late Wednesday that she had been working furiously throughout the day on language for a resolution that would authorize not just a no-flight zone but additional steps to halt the movement of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.
“We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council around a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians,” Ms. Rice said. “The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone.”
The diplomats were in a race against time, however, with loyalist military units surrounding the strategically located town of Ajdabiya and massing for a push up the road to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 100 miles distant, rebel officials said. Ms. Rice said she hoped to bring the measure to a vote on Thursday.
Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in Misurata, welcomed the new American push. “We are very heartened yesterday by the moves in the United Nations Security Council and the urgency of the American stand,” he said, speaking over a satellite phone.