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Libya lurched closer towards a full-blown civil war as troops loyal to Muammer Gaddafi launched a counter-offensive against rebel forces advancing in the east and attacked opposition-held towns in the west.

Pro-regime forces armed with artillery and supported by aircraft attacked opposition forces in Bin Jawad, a small town east of Sirte, which is a key target for rebel troops as it is Colonel Gaddafi’s birthplace and one of his few remaining strongholds.

The opposition fighters moved into Bin Jawad on Saturday after recapturing Ras Lanuf, an oil terminal which was also the target of air strikes on Sunday. Sirte is considered critical in the conflict as it is thought to be heavily defended by regime troops and lies along a strategic coastal highway that links the opposition-controlled east to the west. There were also reports of Col Gaddafi’s forces using tanks, helicopters and artillery as they battled for control of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, and Misurata, to the east of the capital.

Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel, reported that electricity, the internet and telephone communications had been cut in Zawiya, which has endured two days of heavy attacks from regime forces. The regime has previously shut down communications, making it impossible to verify much of the information coming out of the country.

The crisis in the oil-rich north African state began as a popular uprising in mid-February. But it has rapidly degenerated into an armed conflict as Col. Gaddafi has used brutal force in an attempt to crush the protests, while opposition fighters, who control the east, have armed themselves with looted weapons and begun advancing west.

Lord Mandelson, UK business secretary in the previous Labour government, has launched a spirited defence of the previous British government’s ties to Libya, saying the “denunciation” of those engaged with Col Gaddafi’s regime had been taken to “ridiculous lengths” and could hamper British investment overseas.

Libya’s state television had earlier said the regime had retaken control of Zawiya and Misurata, western cities which have been under opposition control, as well as Ras Lanuf and other eastern towns. The broadcaster said pro-Gaddafi forces were marching on Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the headquarters of the opposition’s national council.

In a reflection of the chaotic nature of the loosely organised Libyan opposition, which is desperately trying to build structures and impose some order in the east, a group of British special forces who were accompanying a diplomat were taken captive by rebel fighters on Sunday.

The group was later released and left the country aboard HMS Cumberland.

Heavy gunfire broke out in central Tripoli before first light and continued for many hours, in what officials and pro-government demonstrators said was celebration at the big gains claimed by Col Gaddafi’s regime. But opposition officials dismissed the claims.

“We are dealing with military and psychological warfare,” said Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. “These are all lies . . . the regime is trying to spread this propaganda to its own people.

Mohammed, an opposition fighter in Misurata, said the battle there lasted for five hours, during which pro-Gaddafi forces entered the city with about 20 tanks. The rebels managed to repel the regime’s forces and capture three tanks, he said.

“They shelled buildings, it was very heavy shelling,” he said. “We managed to surround the tanks and attack them from different directions and we were able to disperse them.” FT

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