TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan government soldiers battled rebels on the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday as the United States raised the possibility of air strikes to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
But the international debate on what action to take may have dragged on too long to help the anti-Gaddafi uprising, now struggling to hold its ground one month after it started.
Clashes around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town on the coastal highway, hampered the government advance on Benghazi but the army warned citizens it had the city in its sights and people should leave rebel-held locations.
On the approaches to Ajdabiyah, burned out cars could be seen by the roadside while Libyan government forces displayed artillery, tanks and mobile rocket launchers, much heavier weapons than those used by the rebels.
The United States, previously cool on the idea of a foreign military intervention, said the U.N. Security Council should consider tougher action than a no-fly zone over Libya.
"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," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in New York.
"The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone."
Washington had initially reacted cautiously to Arab League and European calls for a no-fly zone over Libya, with some officials concerned it could be militarily ineffective or politically damaging.
Diplomats at the United Nations told Reuters that the United States, Britain and France now supported the idea of the council authorizing military action such as airstrikes to protect civilian areas.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped the security council would vote "no later than Thursday."
Saying Gaddafi seemed determined to kill as many as Libyans as possible, she said "many different actions" were being considered.
Russia, China, Germany, India and other council members are either undecided or have voiced doubts about the proposal for a no-fly zone. Italy, a potential base for military action, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting country.
A U.S. official said he could not confirm any discussion of a plan to attack Libyan forces. In theory, he said, military action could be directed not only at Gaddafi's air force, but at artillery and communications systems too.
The U.S. change appeared to driven by the worsening plight of the rebels, who are fighting to end 41 years of rule by Gaddafi and have set up a provisional national council in Benghazi.
Their ill-equipped forces have been routed by troops backed by tanks, artillery and war planes from towns they had seized in the early days of the uprising.
Gaddafi, in an interview with French daily Le Figaro, said his troops' aim was to liberate the people from "the armed gangs" that occupy Benghazi.
"If we used force, it would take just a day. But our aim is to progressively dismantle the armed groups, through various means, such as encircling cities or sending negotiators."
But asked if dialogue with the rebels was possible, he repeated his assertion that they were linked to the al Qaeda Islamic militant organization.
"These are not people with whom we aim to talk to as al-Qaeda does not talk with anybody."
On the fate of the rebel leadership, he said: "It is quite possible they will flee. Anyway, it's not really a structure. It has no value."
A statement on Al-Libya state television told people in Benghazi that the army was on its way.
"It urges you to keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located," it said.
Benghazi residents poured scorn on the announcement and said the city was quiet.
One civilian reached by phone from Tobruk, Hisham Mohammed, said: "People are okay here. There is a bit of tension, a little fear of air strikes but most people are fine."
Three warplanes flew over Benghazi airport on Wednesday, witnesses said. An airport employee named Abdallah said one dropped a bomb that left a crater near the airport but did no other damage.
Aid agencies the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres have withdrawn their workers from Benghazi due to safety concerns.
CLASHES ON BENGHAZI, TOBRUK ROADS
The exact state of affairs in Abdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte, was unclear on Thursday morning. Parts of it appeared to have changed hands several times in the past 48 hours, a recurring feature of the war over the towns strung along the North African coast.
Osama Jazwi, a Benghazi doctor, said that when he left Ajdabiyah late on Wednesday, rebels controlled the city and fighting was still going on.
At one point, Gaddafi's forces had cut the road from Adjabiyah to Tobruk but then rebels cleared them from it.
But another civilian in Benghazi, who asked not to be named, said Ajdabiyah has fallen.
"I know people there. There are many people leaving Ajdabiyah, coming through Benghazi and heading for the border."
Bernard-Henri Levy, a French intellectual who returned from a mission to liaise with the rebel leadership, said it was already too late for a no-fly zone.
"We should have done that eight days ago...Today we have to block the assault marching toward Benghazi which will launch a bloodbath. There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises who said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate," he said.
Gaddafi will take a vicious revenge on the Libyan people who "made him look like a clown," he said in France.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Tobruk, Mariam Karouny and Tarek Amara in Tunisia, Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, Tom Heneghan in Algiers; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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