NATO and EU powers were meeting in Brussels to discuss military and economic action against the Libyan government as troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi continued to press their advance against rebels.
The meeting came as a BBC news team revealed how it was captured and brutally beaten while trying to reach the western city of Zawiya, where Gaddafi’s troops overnight claimed victory against the rebels.
As Western countries discussed measures including a possible no-fly zone over Libya, the rebels scored one diplomatic success as France became the first nation to recognize their national council as the country’s “legitimate representative.”
The New York Times said the move was “a victory for the Libyan National Council in its quest for recognition” and a blow to Gaddafi as he scrambled for international support against any NATO action.
"France is playing the role of breaking the ice for the European Union. This is the first nail in the coffin of Gaddafi. We expect all Europe to follow," Mustafa Gheriani, a rebel spokesman said, according to Australia’s ABC network.
Ahead of the extraordinary EU and NATO meetings in Brussels, it appeared that establishment of a possible no-fly zone, which has already received backing from Britain and France and qualified support from the United States, was far from certain.
“NATO is not looking to intervene in Libya,” NATO Secretary Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, according to The Associated Press.
As violence continued on the ground in Libya, a three-man BBC news team told how Libya's army and secret police beat them with fists, knees and rifles and then performed mock executions.
"We were lined up against the wall. I was the last in line — facing the wall," Chris Cobb-Smith told the BBC. "I looked and I saw a plain-clothes guy with a small sub-machine gun. He put it to everyone's neck. I saw him and he screamed at me.
“Then he walked up to me, put the gun to my neck and pulled the trigger twice. The bullets whisked past my ear. The soldiers just laughed."
The news team said they witnessed other detainees who were hooded, handcuffed and often screaming in agony.
All three members of the team, which was detained Monday and held for 21 hours, have since flown out of the country.
The attack on the journalists, which included being held in a cage while others were beaten around them, represents the most serious case yet involving the targeting of international media, the Guardian reports.
The Guardian added that it was urgently trying to establish the whereabouts of one of its own correspondents, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has been missing since Sunday when he was last heard from on the outskirts of Zawiya.
It said the paper had been in contact with Libyan officials in Tripoli and London to try to establish if the award-winning journalist — an Iraqi national — was being held by authorities. Andrei Netto, another journalist working for Brazilian newspaper Estado who had been traveling with Abdul-Ahad, is also missing.
Zawiya was the scene of intense fighting on Wednesday, with the town’s central square reportedly changing hands several times as rebels tried to hold off an onslaught by Gaddafi tanks and snipers. Government forces claimed to have gained the upper hand.
There were also fierce attacks on the strategic eastern oil town of Ras Lanuf, as Gaddafi forces backed by war planes curbed rebel attempts to advance further west.
An Al Jazeera correspondent said Gaddafi's airforce targeted junctions at the entrance to the town and attacked an oil facility in three places.
"There are huge plumes of smoke leaping into the air. We can see mortar fire from Gaddafi troops and the rebels are firing rockets towards the west," according to Al Jazeera.
-- Hanna Ingber Win, Barry Neild