Cairo: Bellicose Gaddafi, who has been sidelined totally by the world for the use of violent forces to crush the uprising in Libya, seems to be springing back to the mainstream with the help of his loyalists who have forced rebels to flee from the strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf on Friday.

Muammar Gaddafi’s power, which was on the decline after Libya was hit by protests a month back by oppositions who wanted the exit of Gaddafi from the country, seems to be resurrected.

Reeling under a sustained land, sea and air assault by Libyan forces, rebels fled from the strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf, with the leader of opposition National Council asking the West to impose a flight and naval blockade on his country claiming that people are being "cleansed" by the regime.

68-year-old Muammar Gaddafi's forces launched a large-scale offensive in another oil-producing town of Brega as well, unleashing aerial raids.

Rebel forces retreated from Ras Lanuf, although some reports claimed that they retained control of the residential parts of the town. There was a sustained aerial, artillery and mortar bombardment, Al-Jazeera reported.

"There have been a number of casualties. We've seen trucks going along the highway, but being shelled by Gaddafi forces all the way along. I counted ... 50 shells falling," it quoted a witness as saying, adding that "it seems like a major offensive."

While many opposition fighters had now left the town, a "hard core" was going back to fight, the report said.

Rebels in another eastern city of Benghazi feel the tide "may be reversing", and that there is a "realisation that this is going to be a long, long uprising," it said.

"We are outgunned and are facing cleansing from Gaddafi's forces," Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebel council in Libya told BBC as Gaddafi's forces stormed and captured Zawiyah in the West and Ras Lanuf in the East after bloody battles.

Just days ago, rebels were boldly promising to march towards Gaddafi's hometown of Surt and Tripoli. But this week they suffered a series of setbacks and a reversal of fortunes in key towns.

Gaddafi's loyalists were also advancing in a wide arc towards other rebel-held areas in a counter-offensive that has reversed the opposition's advance towards his bastion of Tripoli.

"We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one. We ask the international community to shoulder their responsibilities. We also want a sea embargo and we urgently need some arms and we also need humanitarian assistance and medicines to be sent to the cities besieged by Gaddafi's troops," Jalil said from his headquarters in the eastern Libya.

Commending France for its decision to recognise his National Council, the Libyan opposition leader asked other nations to follow the lead. "The most effective recognition would be from United States, the UK and Germany, but we also need support of all countries," he said.

The Libyan opposition leader’s clamour for help from western countries came as Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam claimed that victory was in sight and that his forces were poised to uproot the rebels from all areas.

"We're coming," Gaddafi's son declared and referred to people in the eastern part of the country as being held "hostage by the traitors".

Al-Jazeera said hundreds of rebels and cars and trucks mounted with machine guns were speeding eastwards on the Mediterranean coastal road in a seemingly disorganised flight from Ras Lanuf.

Quoting medics, it said 400 people have died and 2,000 more wounded in eastern Libya since February 17.

The United Nations has said that more than 250,000 have now fled the fighting since the revolt against Gaddafi started. It says over 1,000 have died in the uprising.

But the rebel chief in his interview to a news channel insisted that the anti-regime forces were not disintegrating and remained strong. "Everybody should know that there is no balance between our capabilities and Gaddafi's," he said.

Gaddafi's government has warned Tripoli residents and imams of the mosques not to allow any protest after the Friday prayers.

Pro-and anti-government forces were locked in intense fighting for control of several other cities and towns along the coastline to the east of Tripoli, including Bin Jawad.

France, UK want strikes in Libya

Meanwhile, at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that
France and Britain favour targeted strikes in Libya in case Muammar Gaddafi uses chemical weapons or air strikes against his people.

Sarkozy said Paris had "many reservations" on military or NATO intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".

Sarkozy also called on his European partners to follow France's lead and officially recognise the opposition against Gaddafi as the hard-pressed rebels in the east tried to counter a major offensive troops that had driven them back.

France on Thursday moved to recognise the rebels as the country's rightful representatives, sparking surprise among some of its European partners, including Germany, amid fears of getting dragged into a bloody civil war.

Combined with the possibility of military action, the summit is likely to prove contentious as leaders try to map out some common ground.

The conflict in Libya is destabilising the whole North African and Middle East region where popular unrest against long-established regimes has already ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia so far this year.

Gaddafi feels 'betrayed'

On the other side in Tripoli, Gaddafi’s French imterpreter revealed that the Libyan leader is saddened and feels betrayed by the uprising against his regime but he will never give in and quit.

"He never expected this and this is why maybe he is so sad. He believes he had done everything for the Libyan people," said Meftah Missouri, a 61-year-old former diplomat who holds a doctorate in history.

For the past 16 years, Missouri has been Gaddafi's official French language interpreter and has come to know closely the man who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for more than four decades.

He described Gaddafi as someone who is "noble," a Bedouin proud of his roots who admires the likes of German World War II military commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and France's Sun King, King Louis XIV.

"According to him, yes, he has been betrayed by everyone, even by his cousin Ahmed Kadhaf al-Dam," the dapper Missouri, who studied in France and Geneva, said in fluent French.

Kadhaf al-Dam, a close aide, defected at the end of February to protest against the handling of the Libyan rebellion just over a week after the uprising broke out.

"He is a very strong man."

Bitter, however, because he considers that some world leaders whom he considered "friends," such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have turned against him.

"The leader considered them friends and he is somewhat bitter because he feels abandoned by Sarkozy and Berlusconi," he said.

(JPN/Agencies)