As Muammar Gaddafi's forces carried out bloody assaults on rebel-held towns yesterday, those suffering his wrath were increasingly asking a stark question: Why is the West failing to offer help in our desperate time of need?

Two frontline towns held by dissidents came under sustained attack and an oil facility was set ablaze yesterday during ferocious fighting that left dozens dead as Gaddafi forces rolled back opposition military gains.

Feeling was growing in opposition ranks that the disorganised and disunited political and military leadership of the protest movement could not withstand much longer the sustained pressure from Gaddafi's forces.

Western powers which wish the rebels well remain divided about the feasibility or desirability of intervention, but the momentum behind Gaddafi's fightback seems undeniable.

The Benghazi-based rebel leadership has called for a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the regime.

Former Justice Minister Abdel Jalil, a leading member who had a price put on his head by the regime yesterday, said the West must "help protect Libya's people from Gaddafi's assault and help put an end to his war".

British and American officials were at pains to dampen any hopes of swiftly putting a no-fly zone in place during a Nato defence ministers' meeting in Brussels. "We want to see the international community support it," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

The British and French Governments have said they are drafting a United Nations Security Council resolution banning military aircraft over Libya, but it would be unlikely to pass given Russia and China's opposition.

Hopes that the revolution could bring four decades of dictatorship to an end were being replaced by the fear that the regime will crush its opponents with firepower. The strategic oil port of Ras Lanouf in the east was pounded by an artillery barrage interspersed with airstrikes. Zawiyah, in the west, which became a symbol of resistance, had, according to regime officials, been recaptured.

A doctor in the town said he had counted about 50 dead from the fighting by late afternoon. A Libyan army captain declared: "Security is at about 95 per cent. There are some rats lying in alleys, hiding in flats. We are capturing them one group after another."

The two sides blamed each other for igniting a pipeline and storage tanks at the port of Sidra, outside Ras Lanouf, the second-largest oil outlet for the country. An orange fireball rose into the sky just after a warplane had streaked overhead. However, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire had been exchanged nearby.

Rebel fighters the Shabaab had attempted to advance to Bin Jawad and claimed at one stage to have reached the outskirts of the town. But they were driven back with losses and yesterday regime troops were advancing towards Ras Lanouf with a number of tanks and trucks carrying troops.

Four men were killed and 18 injured in Ras Lanouf in the bombardment and the town, near empty with most of the residents having fled, was preparing for the arrival of the enemy.

More than 400 had been killed in the east since the protests started on February 17, said Dr Gebril Hewadi, of the Benghazi Medical Centre.

"We need help, we need this help urgently or we are lost," said Yunus Astarsi, a doctor at the general hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya. "We need medicine, we need food supplies and we need the international powers to stop his bombings so every day we do not face this."

Asking for assistance from the West has not been the first choice of the protest movement. Days after the uprising, posters were put up in liberated cities stating: "No to foreign intervention. Libyans can do it alone."

The situation on the ground has changed this stance, with members of the provisional government in Benghazi asking first for a no-fly zone and then airstrikes.

But there is a feeling among the public and officials that there must be a limit to any Western protection.

"We cannot have foreign troops on the ground, we don't want to be another Iraq," said Abu Bakr Ibadullah, a 44-year-old engineer in Ras Lanouf. He was taking his family to seek safety with his brother further east in Tobruk.

"Gaddafi is using his planes to bomb us. If America and Europe can stop that by stopping these planes, we shall have a chance."

But the revolution may need more than a no-fly zone to survive. Outgunned by the regime's forces, the rebels are turning on each other as they see their early successes reversed.

Mehdi Ibrahimi, a 22-year-old Shabaab volunteer, spoke of his bitterness at the lack of enthusiasm among the Libyan military who had changed sides and had joined the rebel forces.

An earlier attempt to take Bin Jawad had failed with many rebel fighters killed or injured.

Those taken captive were shown on Libyan state television, their hands tied behind their backs. A Libyan officer stood in front of them saying to the camera: "This is a message. We have killed you in Bin Jawad, we shall kill you in Ras Lanouf, we shall kill you wherever we find you in Libya."

- Independent