BENGHAZI/RAS LANUF, Libya - Libyan warplanes launched air strikes on rebel forces in the east on Tuesday as the two sides faced off across a new front line close to major oil export terminals.
The battlefield has become mired in attack and counter-attack between the loose-knit rebel army of young volunteers and defectors and Libya's army in a buffer zone of barren desert and scrub between east and west.
Libyan rebels rejected overtures by a representative of Muammar Gaddafi to negotiate his exit as his grip on power is increasingly challenged.
There were three air strikes near rebel positions on the outskirts of the oil terminal of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday following similar attacks the previous day. No casualties were reported.
Immediately after the latest explosion, rebels began chanting "Allah akbar" (God is greatest).
"I confirm that we received contact from a Gaddafi representative seeking to negotiate Gaddafi's exit. We rejected this," a media officer for the rebel Libyan National Council, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters, adding:
"We are not negotiating with someone who spilled Libyan blood and continues to do so. Why would we trust the guy today?" said Gheriani for the council, which is based in Libya's second city of Benghazi where the uprising against Gaddafi began.
In fiery and defiant speeches, Gaddafi has vowed to fight on and has told his supporters he will never leave Libya and end his 41-year-old rule.
Al Jazeera television said the Libyan government denied having talks with the rebels.
Gaddafi's son, Saadi, told an Arabic channel that if the leader bowed to international pressure and left Libya would erupt into civil war.
Saadi said that if Gaddafi unleashed the full might of his armed forces this could also push Libya into civil war due to tribal divisions and at the moment the army was limited to guarding "sensitive sites" and against foreign threats.
Rebels, who have set their eyes on Gaddafi's reinforced hometown of Sirte further west, said government forces had dug in their tanks near the town of Bin Jawad while rebels retreated to the oil town of Ras Lanuf and set up a forward checkpoint.
The two towns are about 60 km (40 miles) apart on the strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean sea that leads to Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli.
Witnesses said there was an air strike at about 11 a.m. near a residential area of Ras Lanuf. A Reuters witness saw a blast crater about 3 metres (10 feet) wide by one metre deep by the side of a road near a rebel checkpoint.
Mustafa Askat, an oil worker who was also at the site, said: "Yes I saw it, it was at 11 this morning." He said it struck a water line to the city and filled up the crater with water. He said the attack would affect water supplies to the city.
"We have a hospital inside, we have sick people and they need water urgently," he said.
An air strike had also been reported earlier in the day.
Rebels fired at the aircraft, chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans. One mimicked a line from one of his recent speeches in which he urged Libyans to defend against "terrorists" in their midst: "Alley to alley, house to house, oh Muammar, you donkey!"
A third airstrike hit the desert a few kilometres from the city's edge.
Hundreds of people have died in the uprising that started in mid-February and some countries are pushing to impose a no-fly zone that would keep Gaddafi's warplanes and attack helicopters grounded and remove his advantage of controlling the air space.
There was a tense stalemate on the battlefield on Tuesday.
"Our last checkpoint is still in the same place. We've launched some forward attacks though. Es Sider is in our control," rebel fighter Hussam al-Rammahi told Reuters. "Gaddafi's forces haven't moved either.
Another rebel, Adel Yahya, said: "We're about 10-15 km (6-10 miles) out from Ras Lanuf where the Es Sider oil company is. We're in control there."
Es Sider, like other towns along the coast such as Ras Lanuf, Zueitina and Brega, has an oil terminal. Es Sider lies right in the frontline area, and it was not possible independently to confirm the presence of rebels there.
Oil sources said on Monday that Ras Lanuf and Brega ports were not working due to the military activity all around.
The largely inexperienced rebels lack the firepower of their rivals. They have no warplanes to back them up and rely mostly on heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and rocket propelled grenades. They travel by 4x4 pick-up trucks.
But their agility, often fairly chaotic at the front, has given them a degree of protection from Gaddafi's forces, who have proved more effective at quashing the rebellion in the west around the Libyan leader's Tripoli powerbase.
Arab media had reported that the Libyan leader had reached out to the council to offer talks on Gaddafi's departure, which is the central demand of rebels who have seized swathes of the country mainly in the east from the Libyan leader's control.
A council source on Monday told Reuters he had heard of a proposal that Gaddafi hand power to the head of parliament and leave Libya with a guaranteed sum of money. He had also said the council saw the cash element as an obstacle.
The head of the rebel council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, told Al Arabiya television: "Now the first demand is that he announces his departure, and only after that perhaps Libyans will stop pursuing him for crimes."
"There are indirect contacts with the Americans at the presidential level," he added, without giving details.
Al Jazeera also cited Abdel Jalil as saying that there was "no chance for Gaddafi's rule over Libya to continue". It said there were talks about mediation by a foreign state to secure a safe exit for Gaddafi.
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