RAS LANUF, Libya (AFP) - – Air strikes targeted rebel positions on Sunday and outgunned insurgents were forced to retreat but Libyan TV reports that Moamer Kadhafi's forces had retaken a swathe of key towns were swiftly denied.
The rebels said they had withdrawn from the coastal hamlet of Bin Jawad, occupied on Saturday in an advance westward on Kadhafi's home town Sirte, after clashes which doctors said left two dead and around 50 wounded.
It was the first time since the uprising against the Libyan leader began on February 15 that the rebels have admitted conceding ground to his forces.
Focus: Echo of Balkans in US policy debate on Libya
Ali Errishi, Kadhafi's former immigration minister who joined the rebellion, voiced growing rebel frustration at a lack of international assistance for the ragtag and ill-equipped force.
He told CNN that the United States had missed an opportunity to oust the Libyan strongman by "dragging its feet" over aiding the rebels in the early days of the uprising, now approaching its fourth week.
"They were dragging their feet, I don't know why. We asked, we don't want a no-fly zone actually, we just want air cover."
Scene: Frustrated Libyan rebels angry at Bin Jawad defeat
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, one of those pressing for a "no-fly" zone, said any international military intervention in Libya would have "absolutely negative" effects, during a visit to neighbour Egypt.
"Given the possibility that the fighting could become bloodier, we must prepare ourselves to react, and that's the reason why we have to plan for a flight interdiction zone over Libya," Juppe said.
His comments were aired as Britain was forced to admit a secret weekend attempt to begin negotiations with the rebels had ended ignominiously after the opposition forces arrested a group of soldiers and at least one diplomat helicoptered into Libya.
"I can confirm that a small British diplomatic team has been in Benghazi," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
"The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition. They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved. They have now left Libya."
Britain's Sunday Times said the eight-man group comprised SAS (Special Air Service) soldiers and a diplomat.
"We refused to discuss anything with them due to the way they entered the country," national council spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoqa told reporters in the rebel stronghold Benghazi.
He said the men came into Libya by helicopter, landing in Suluk, a small town southwest of Benghazi where they were detained.
They were reportedly on their way home late on Sunday aboard a British ship sent to Benghazi to evacuate refugees.
Earlier, thousands celebrated in Tripoli as state television channel Allibiya reported that government forces had taken control of Libya's third city of Misrata, the key oil centre of Ras Lanuf and even Tobruk near the Egyptian border.
Scene: Tripoli celebrates regime 'victories'
AFP reporters in Ras Lanuf, taken by rebels early on Saturday, confirmed it was still in opposition hands despite being hit by air strikes early on Sunday.
But Misrata residents said government tanks had begun shelling the town and warned of "carnage" if the international community did not intervene.
A rebel spokesman confirmed that Misrata was under intense fire from pro-Kadhafi forces and reported "casualties," but insisted the city was still in rebel hands.
"Kadhafi forces are shelling Misrata randomly. They are using mortars and rockets," said the spokesman.
"They are firing on protesters gathered at Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square)" in the city centre and tanks are also shelling houses as well."
A rebel officer, Colonel Bashir al-Moghrabi, told reporters in Ras Lanuf rebels were also still in control in Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, where fierce battles took place on Saturday.
A local doctor said Saturday there had been a "massacre" in Zawiyah and a Sky News journalist said Kadhafi's forces had fired on civilians.
A member of the rebel-appointed council in Tobruk, Fateh Faraj, contacted Sunday by AFP, also said claims that that town had fallen were "not true."
Wounded streaming back from Bin Jawad to Ras Lanuf said Kadhafi loyalists lured them into a trap, hiding in homes, mingling with civilians and hunkering down on rooftops.
As the inexperienced rebels armed only with Kalashnikov assault rifles drove on, oblivious to the hidden threat, the ambushers unleashed a massive salvo of fire.
A French journalist was shot in the leg, becoming the conflict's first media casualty, but he was not believed to be seriously hurt.
The rebels had vowed to march on Sirte from Bin Jawad, which was the furthest point AFP saw them deployed along the Mediterranean coast on Saturday.
Two attacks by lone warplanes targeted a checkpoint on the eastern edge of Ras Lanuf and a rebel camp in a former military barracks in the centre Sunday.
Rebels responded with anti-aircraft fire and there were no immediate reports of casualties, but a huge explosion was heard later in the town.
The rebels scored a diplomatic victory when France on Sunday hailed the creation of their "National Council," saying it supported its objectives.
The rebels formed the council on Saturday at a meeting in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east of the North African country.
"The council declares it is the sole representative all over Libya," said former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who will chair the 30-member body.
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Meanwhile, Kadhafi's government asked the Arab League to reverse a February 22 decision suspending it from the organisation's meetings, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim said.
Kadhafi told the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche he wanted the United Nations or African Union to probe the unrest and promised: "We will let this panel work unhampered."
An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have entered Tunisia from Libya since February 20, Tunisian officials said. Many have been repatriated in an international effort, but thousands remain in temporary camps facing growing problems of hygiene.
The European Union sent experts to Libya on Sunday on a fact-finding mission "to assess humanitarian and evacuation efforts on the ground in Libya and to make an appraisal of what may be needed in terms of additional support."
Reposted From AFP