Bodies and smouldering rubble littered the streets, as tanks blasted shells and rolled towards the centre of a city that has been under siege for two days. Dozens are reported dead in street-by-street fighting.
In the east of the country, an air force jet crashed into the desert near the oil port of Ras Lanuf. Jubilant rebels celebrated around the wreckage, which contained the pilot’s headless body.
It was not immediately clear whether the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 had been shot down by the rebels, as they claimed, or whether the pilot’s head had been blown off or decapitated.
The battle for Zawiyah, just 30 miles from Col Muammar’s Tripoli stronghold, has become the bloodiest showdown in a rebellion that this weekend is turning Libya towards a full-scale civil war.
Residents described at least 20 tanks rolling towards rebel positions and said that regime militia and mercenaries stormed buildings and killed people inside to secure the roof-tops for snipers. The city echoed to the sound of machine gun fire.
“The fighting has intensified and the tanks are shelling everything on their way,” said one resident. “They have shelled houses. Now they are shelling a mosque. We can’t rescue anyone because the shelling is so heavy.”
It was the second attempt by Col Gaddafi’s forces to win back control of Zawiyah in a matter of hours - an indication of the importance that the regime places on a town so close to the capital.
Youssef Shagan, a rebel spokesman, said that anti-Gaddafi forces captured three armoured personnel carriers and two tanks in the morning clashes.
Rebels who have established their headquarters in the square said they were under siege and were running out of supplies.
“Troops are on the west side, the east side and the south side, so anything could happen really,” a man who gave his name as Tarik told the BBC. “No supplies are entering Zawiyah, so I would say we have another five days of supplies.”
Another anti-Gaddafi rebel said they would fight to the last man. “Gaddafi will never enter this city,” he insisted. “He will never set foot here. The only way for him to enter the city is when we are all dead. He has to kill us all to control the city.”
A doctor said that at least 30 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the morning fighting, bringing the city’s death toll to 60 in the past two days. “There is a lot of destruction in the city, I look around and all I see is destruction,” he said. “Bombed buildings and burning cars everywhere.”
Some reports spoke of at least eight dead soldiers and five burning armoured vehicles in the central square.
The rebel forces that control eastern Libya consolidated their grip on Ras Lanuf, which fell on Friday, and said they had pushed west to take control of Bin Jawad, 325 miles east of Tripoli.
Both sides are preparing for a bloody battle for Col Gaddafi’s heavily-fortified home town of Sirte, 100 miles west of rebel fronlines.
The National Libyan Council, based in the de facto rebel “capital” of Benghazi, named a three-member governing “crisis committee”, which included a head of military affairs and one for foreign affairs.