RAS LANOUF, Libya — Libyan rebels said Monday they will regroup and bring in heavy weapons after forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi pounded opposition fighters with helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to stop the rebels' rapid advance toward the capital.
An airstrike hit Ras Lanouf, a key oil port held by the rebels, on Monday but there were no casualties. A day earlier, a heavy assault by pro-regime forces stalled the rebel advance.
Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, told The Associated Press that his forces need reinforcements from the east after Sunday's setback.
"The orders are to stay here and guard the refinery, because oil is what makes the world go round," said rebel fighter Ali Suleiman, speaking at one of the checkpoints set up around Ras Lanouf.
Sunday's fighting appeared to signal the start of a new phase in the conflict, with Gadhafi's regime unleashing its air power on the rebel force trying to oust the ruler of 41 years. Resorting to heavy use of air attacks signaled the regime's concern that it needed to check the advance of the rebel force toward Sirte — Gadhafi's hometown and stronghold.
Anti-Gadhafi forces would get a massive morale boost if they captured Sirte, and it would clear a major obstacle on the march toward the gates of Tripoli.
The uprising against Gadhafi, which began Feb. 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
Libya appears to be sliding toward a civil war that could drag out for weeks, or even months. Both sides seem to be relatively weak and poorly trained, though Gadhafi's forces have the advantage in numbers and equipment.
Hundreds if not thousands of people have died since Libya's uprising began — tight restrictions on media make it near impossible to get an accurate tally. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia — another North African country in turmoil after an uprising in January that ousted its longtime leader.