Fighters have been forced from the key Libyan oil port of Ras Lanuf after a sustained and brutal pro-Gaddafi onslaught by tanks, planes and field artillery, eyewitnesses reported Thursday.
It marks the latest serious — and potentially catastrophic setback — for fighters as their lightly-armed forces retreat further back along the single main coastal road, ceding a key position.
Yesterday's retreat followed an attack by fighter jets upon the oil refinery in Brega, a few hours south of Benghazi, just before midday.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi seems to have consolidated his hold on rebellious towns in the west of the country, declaring the bloodily-contested city of Zaiwiyah "liberated".
The rebels' National Council, based in Benghazi, has stepped up its pleas for international assistance, giving up on the US for the time being and focusing its diplomatic attention on Britain, Turkey and France.
The latter on Thursday became the first country to recognise the rebels and the National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, prompting brief jubilation in rebel-held Benghazi where a printed banner appeared within an hour thanking France.
Massive demonstrations are planned for today, when Ahram Online has been told some tens of thousands from across eastern Libya will convene in Benghazi's Tahrir Square, demanding democracy and urgent international assistance.
But amid mixed signals from the international community, it is volunteer fighters, poorly armed and barely trained, who are bearing the brunt on the battle's western front.
Ahram Online visited the forward bases between Brega and Ras Lanuf and talked to a motley collection of passionate, defiant but worryingly ill-prepared fighters.
It was difficult to ascertain who exactly was giving orders, with some fighters claiming former military figures were giving advice and others saying they had elected civilian leaders.
Numerous small towns lining the highway appeared to have large supplies of AK-47 ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives, but few fighters believed such supplies alone were sufficient against truck-mounted rockets, shelling and air strikes of pro-Gaddafi forces.
"We have our faith and we have God in command," said Hamed Al-Fadi, a 42-year-old rebel. His friends held Kalashnikovs but he had only a knife.
Scenes in Ras Lanuf itself were even more chaotic, as the couple of hundred-strong force holding the refinery town's main intersection crowded perilously close together amid crates of Russian-made ammunition and explosives.
Aircraft circled overheard several times during our visit, lightly-armed fighters scattering and anti-aircraft guns firing into the sky to cries of "Allah Akhbar".
Bombs pounded the outskirts of town several times, sending plumes of smoke and sand into the air. Beyond a barrier stood no-man's land — a fiercely fought stretch of 20 kilometres leading onwards to Ben Jawad and pro-Gaddafi forces.
Much of Ras Lanuf was already abandoned, families having fled to eastern cities. In the backstreets, a two-storey family home stood split open like a dollshouse, a three-metre crater in the garden.
Across the road, rebel engineers tinkered with an unexploded bomb, trying to extract its explosives.
Further inside the town, staff at a hilltop medical centre were providing light medical care and compiling lists of missing fighters. This and the overlooking mosque were reportedly hit by aerial bombardment later on Thursday and evacuated.
It seems the rest of Ras Lanuf has followed, although some isolated reports still spoke of pockets of rebel resistance late Thursday. Unless they manage a quick and decisive counterattack, however, fighters could be facing a speedy and brutal rout.