* Rebels report Gaddafi counter-attack east of capital
* China backs African plan to end crisis
* Rebels claim advance on desert front
By Nick Carey
MISRATA, Libya, July 21 Libyan rebels said a
fierce counter-attack by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi had
checked their gains on a frontline east of Tripoli on Thursday.
A rebel spokesman in Zlitan, on the coast road 160 km (100
miles) east of the capital, said pro-Gaddafi forces backed by
tanks had surrounded rebels who had seized the nearby town of
Souk al-Thulatha the previous day.
The soldiers had flattened homes with tank shells, he said
in an Internet posting.
"The brigades are still terrorising the families, combing
villages and neighbourhoods and spreading panic in the whole
region," he said.
The rebels, who swiftly took much of eastern Libya after an
uprising flared in February, have also taken casualties around
the oil port of Brega, south of their stronghold Benghazi.
They said they were still trying to take the town fully from
State TV showed what it said were fresh pictures from Zlitan
and Brega in an apparent bid to show the towns were still firmly
in Tripoli's hands. In Zlitan, dozens of Gaddafi supporters were
shown chanting slogans of support.
As the war drags on longer than many expected, with Muammar
Gaddafi thwarting efforts to drive him out, separate diplomatic
efforts to find a solution have intensified.
China said it would work with the African Union, which has
proposed a plan that is seen as less hostile to the Libyan
leader than a Western roadmap that insists on his stepping down.
President Hu Jintao told his visiting South African
counterpart Jacob Zuma that the Africans had played an important
role in pushing a political solution.
"China greatly appreciates this and is willing to continue
remaining in close touch and to coordinate closely with South
Africa and the African Union on the Libya issue," Hu said.
France said on Wednesday Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he
gave up power, an apparent softening of the West's stance in a
new effort to find a diplomatic end to the five-month-old war.
The United States said Gaddafi must quit, but whether he
remained in Libya after that would be up to the Libyan people.
Libya dismissed the idea, saying Gaddafi's departure after
41 years in power was not up for discussion.
While China did not use its veto in March to block a U.N.
Security Council resolution that authorised the NATO bombing
campaign against Libya, it then quickly condemned the strikes
and has urged a compromise between the government and rebels.
Even with NATO support, the rebels have been making slow
progress against Gaddafi.
They lost 18 fighters with up to 150 wounded in the latest
clashes around Brega, an eastern Mediterranean coast town they
must capture if they are to advance on Tripoli, a doctor said.
"Yesterday, it was a disaster," said Dr Sarahat Atta-Alah at
the hospital in nearby rebel-held Ajdabiya on Wednesday.
Rebel fighters have said they have encircled Brega, which
provides access to most of Libya's eastern oil network and which
has changed hands several times, but that they were still coming
under fire from pro-Gaddafi forces.
A U.N. diplomat said U.N. envoy Abdul Elah al-Khatib might
go to Libya next week, sensing "a greater mood" in Tripoli to
engage with his proposals. The diplomat gave no details, but
said military and diplomatic pressure on Gaddafi was growing.
Some analysts have said that Gaddafi is running short of
fuel and food, which could stoke popular unrest ahead of the
Muslim month of Ramadan which begins next week. During Ramadan,
people prepare nightly feasts after fasting by day.
The state news agency JANA said officials met on Thursday to
ensure food supplies "reach consumers as soon as possible before
the start of Ramadan".
It quoted the head of Tripoli port as saying "cargoes
carrying barley, wheat, bananas and other food supplies dock on
a daily basis" at the port.
Little attention has been made to Libya's vast but sparsely
populated Sahara interior, but Thursday's Wall Street Journal
quoted rebels as saying they were making progress north towards
the regional capital of Sabha in the heart of the country.
However, a hotel worker in the city, almost 800 km (500
miles) from Tripoli, told Reuters by telephone: "Everything is
fine in Sabha and the regions south of the city."
He said colleagues who had been south had seen no rebels
Libyans using the state-run cellphone network said they had
been receiving text messages this week calling on them to go and
fight in the Western Mountains, the front closest to Tripoli.
"The clock of action has struck. The time for cleansing has
come. Today the Western Mountains will burn," ran a message sent
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat, Rania El Gamal
in Benghazi, Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Brian
Love and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, Patrick Worsnip in New York;
writing by Richard Meares, editing by Alistair Lyon)