Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Washington — Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi carried out attacks on several rebel-held areas and deployed an elite military brigade to help bolster defenses, U.S. officials said, despite sharply stepped-up coalition airstrikes against his regime.
Kadafi's military assaults Tuesday suggested that the Libyan strongman is seeking to crush the remnants of the 5-week-old popular rebellion against his regime, underscoring deepening questions about to whether the U.S.-led air campaign is succeeding.
Libyan army tanks and artillery were reportedly used against rebel fighters in the seaport of Misurata, the last major city in western Libya held by the ragtag rebel force trying to overthrow Kadafi's four decades of rule.
Kadafi's military also has not withdrawn from two other Libyan cities that have seen heavy fighting, Ajdabiya and Zawiya, as President Obama as demanded.
A witness in Misurata said coalition warplanes or missiles struck a large ammunition depot used by Kadafi's forces south of the city, causing an earth-shaking explosion and sending a fireball into the sky early Wednesday.
Reached by telephone earlier, a pharmacist in Misurata said that the city had come under "continuous shelling," and that government soldiers took up positions in the main hospital after coalition aircraft struck their base at the city's airport.
A government spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, said Monday that Misurata had been mostly "liberated." But the pharmacist mocked the claim. "If he controls the city, come and show us," he said. "Show us on television how he controls the city."
Coalition forces also struck the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and the surrounding area for the fourth night. At least three loud explosions, presumably coalition airstrikes or missiles, shook buildings as antiaircraft fire and tracer rounds lighted up the sky around 9 p.m.
In all, coalition aircraft launched 57 attacks Tuesday, more than twice the number carried out in the first three days of the campaign, according to the Pentagon. Naval vessels also launched 26 cruise missiles, up from a dozen the day before.
In a sign that Washington may be considering additional steps to drive Kadafi from power, a State Department official said the coalition has authority to arm the Libyan rebels.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the authorization is in the United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last week, which mandates use of "all necessary measures" to prevent Kadafi from attacking Libyan civilians.
But Toner said he was unaware of any countries funneling weapons to the rebels, a broad amalgam of tribes, defectors and regime opponents with no clear political ideology.
Two U.S. Air Force aviators were safely rescued after they parachuted out of their F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet late Monday before it plummeted into the desert near Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya. U.S. officials attributed the crash, the first major coalition loss of the air campaign, to "equipment malfunction."
The pilot stayed in radio contact with another F-15 after ejecting and was picked up within two hours by a team of Marines who flew from the assault ship Kearsarge off the Libyan coast, officials said. The aircraft's weapons officer was found by Libyan rebels and was turned over to U.S. personnel.
The aircraft, usually based in England, was flying out of Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy. The military said it was not releasing the aviators' identities until family members were notified
U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the U.S. operational commander, said that despite the ferocity of coalition attacks, Kadafi has launched "continued aggressive actions … against the civilian population of Libya."
Locklear, who spoke to Pentagon reporters from his command vessel, the Mount Whitney, said elements of Kadafi's 32nd Brigade, a well-trained unit made up of troops loyal to the regime, had moved from near Tripoli, the capital, to other areas in an apparent effort to strengthen defenses.
The coalition air campaign has mostly focused on destroying Libyan air defense sites and ensuring that Libyan aircraft and, when possible, military helicopters remain grounded. The next phase will see more fighters sent into the air over major cities and towns to the west, including Tripoli, officials said.
As the "capability of the coalition" grows, Locklear said, allies will target more missions against Libyan troops attacking civilian areas.
"The forces of Kadafi were a fairly significant land force that he has arrayed in various locations around that country," he said. "We are dealing with it."
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.