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Libyan forces attacked rebel-held areas again on Monday, reportedly seizing control of the oil town of Ras Lanuf after most residents evacuated.

But even as troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi tried to reverse the rebels’ territorial gains, a former Libyan prime minister appeared on the state-controlled television station and called for negotiations to end the weeks-long uprising.

Jadallah Azous Al-Talhi, who was prime minister in the 1980s, appealed to elders in this rebel-controlled city, asking them for a national dialogue to end the bloodshed. At the same time, opposition sources said the regime had made private overtures about launching negotiations.

Jalal el Gallal, a spokesman with the opposition in Benghazi, said a Gaddafi representative has reached out to the Transitional National Council, but the council has refused to deal with him. “They’ve been asking for contact, but the council has refused,” Gallal said.

Mohamed Fanoush, a member of the Benghazi city council who is allied with the opposition, also said overtures from Gaddafi’s regime had been rejected out of hand. “The answer was there will be no negotiations as long as you are killing Libyans,” Fanoush said.

A day after lethal attacks by Gaddafi’s forces halted the rebels’ advances, a midmorning airstrike landed near the Ras Lanuf ethylene refinery, sending up a towering plume of black smoke near dozens of massive chemical holding tanks.

Mokhtar Dobrug, a rebel fighter who witnessed the strike, told Reuters that, “there was an aircraft, it fired two rockets. There were no deaths.”

Families and hospital personnel who had stayed during days of fighting around Ras Lanuf evacuated early Monday, after warnings that pro-government forces were preparing to attack.

Residents of Ras Lanuf have spoken openly of their fears that air strikes would lead to a direct hit on one of the tanks. Such a strike “would be like a nuclear weapon,” said Farej Zwawi, a fire-control technician who along his wife and children fled their company-supplied housing Monday. “It would blast 40 square kilometers.”

Although information was scarce and hard to confirm, there were also reports of heavy fighting in in the strategically important city of Zawiyah, near the capital. Rebels forces claimed to still be in control of Libya’s third-largest city, Misurata, after a fierce and bloody battle Sunday that included tanks and artillery.

“Young people are out cleaning the streets, some are checking passersby, and we are preparing for any situation,” said Mohamad Sanusi, 44, whose neighbor was killed in Sunday’s fighting. “Some of the shops are open but most are closed. … Today there will be more funerals in the city of those who died as martyrs in the battle.”

In Geneva, U.N. officials estimated that more than 213,000 foreign workers have left Libya, with many more expected to follow in coming months. They said a humanitarian crisis is building inside the country and on its borders with Tunisia, Egypt and Niger because of the crush of refugees.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed former Jordanian foreign minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib as his special envoy to Libya, and is urging authorities to ensure the safety of all foreigners and provide unhindered access for humanitarian aid.WP

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