Pro-Qadhafi forces have launched a full-scale offensive against Opposition forces, as the latter appeared to retreat from several locations which had previously been held by them in Libya's oil-rich east.

Opposition forces are grimly battling the troops loyal to the Libyan strongman, Muammar Qadhafi, for control over Zawiyah — a strategic oil town 50 km from the Capital Tripoli. Heavy fighting has also been reported from the oil cities of Ras Lanuf, Brega and Ajdabiya. “The revolutionaries control the centre of Zawiyah, and Qadhafi's forces are surrounding it. It's 50-50,” Al Jazeera quoted a resident who had fled the city as saying.

Some among the Opposition fear that in case Zawiyah is overrun, it might provide the regime the flexibility to divert some of its tanks towards the oil cities of the east.

By Thursday evening, more bad news had begun to flow regarding the Opposition's position along the eastern frontlines. Agency reports said that anti-Qadhafi forces were fleeing the oil port of Ras Lanuf following sustained attacks from the regime. AFP quoted a dissident fighter as saying: “We've been defeated. They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf.” Opposition fighters said they had been told, by engineers at Ras Lanuf, that poisonous gas was being flared to prevent a humanitarian disaster, in case the refinery was directly hit.

According to Libyan state television, pro-Qadhafi forces had regained control over the oil port of Sidra, west of Ras Lanuf. On Wednesday, regime fighter jets had bombed oil storage tanks in Sidra.

The setback on the battlefield came amid a solid diplomatic success for the Opposition. France became the first country to recognise the Opposition's Provisional National Transitional Council (PNTC) as the legitimate Libyan government. Opposition representative Ali al-Issawi, who reportedly met with France President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, said: “On the basis of this recognition, we are going to open a diplomatic mission, that is our own embassy in Paris, and an ambassador from France will be sent to Benghazi.”

On Thursday, the pro-Qadhafi forces appeared to have expanded the ambit of combat by attacking from the air, land and sea. In the oil town of Ajdabiya, regime forces attacked by land from the west and the south, as well as from the northern sea. The regime also deployed its naval forces to target the major oil hub of Brega, apart from targeting the city with air strikes.

With violence escalating in Libya, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Jakob Kellenberger, on Thursday sought greater access for aid workers in the country, warning that Libya was now experiencing a “civil war.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) will begin fresh talks on a no-fly zone on Thursday. Meanwhile, Mr. Qadhafi, reinforcing the offensive on the ground and wary of the imposition of a no-fly zone, has sent envoys to Brussels and Cairo.

Opposition representatives held meetings with Swiss government leaders.

With the imposition of a no-fly zone being uncertain, Opposition forces said they would continue their combat operations against Mr. Qadhafi's forces regardless.

“If they implement a no-fly zone, we will ask for other things. Even if they do not implement it, we will fight,” Iman Bugaighis, an Opposition spokesman told the media here. “There is no return for us. This nation will not bear both of us. It is us or his [Qadhafi's] family. After what happened in Zawiyah, how can we live with this person?”

More In: International | News