Rebels holding Libya's third- and fourth-largest cities Thursday repulsed tank-backed assaults by Moammar Gadhafi's forces as the dictator struggled to reclaim areas outside the capital, Tripoli.

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BEYIDA, Libya — Rebels holding Libya’s third- and fourth-largest cities Thursday repulsed tank-backed assaults by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces as the dictator struggled to reclaim areas outside the capital, Tripoli, and fresh high-level defections further fractured his government, residents and news reports said.

President Obama and other Western leaders worked to firm up responses to halt a crackdown that is widely feared to have killed more than 1,000 people during the nine-day revolt. The United States and its NATO allies were considering imposing a “no-fly” zone over Libya to stop government airstrikes on civilians.

In his most recent diatribe over state-run television and hours after an attack on Zawiya, Gadhafi in a rambling speech expressed condolences for the dead and then scolded the city’s residents for siding with the uprising.

He blamed the revolt on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and teenagers hopped up on hallucinogenic pills given to them “in their coffee with milk, like Nescafé.”

Gadhafi also admitted his forces were losing control of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli.

“In Zawiya, this is unbelievable,” Gadhafi said. “People claim they are engineers and teachers and lecturers, so they should have reasonable demands. But these people have no reasonable demands. Their demands are being dictated to them by bin Laden.”

About 100 people died in four hours of fighting in Zawiya that ended with Gadhafi’s forces retreating, said a former senior diplomat reached by phone. The city has a population of about 100,000 and is Libya’s fourth-largest city.

During the battle, Gadhafi loyalists fired automatic weapons and an anti-aircraft gun at a mosque where protesters, some armed with hunting rifles, had camped for days, said a witness quoted by The Associated Press.

The city’s defenders — former security forces and civilians armed with weapons seized from local military bases — labored throughout Thursday evening preparing defenses around the main square for what they feared would be a new assault Friday.

“The people are crowded into Martyrs Square and getting themselves ready to fight,” said the former senior diplomat, who asked that his name be withheld. “We have no choice. We will fight or we will die. There is no peace with Gadhafi as you know.”

Zawiya and two towns east of Tripoli, Misrata and Tajoura, were the targets of efforts by Gadhafi to retake the region beyond the capital, where bloody onslaughts by his troops and African mercenaries appear to have crushed the uprising for now.

Misrata, the country’s third-largest city, with a population of some 300,000, remained in rebel hands after daylong fighting, while pro-Gadhafi gunmen and African mercenaries occupied Tajoura, about 15 miles southeast of Tripoli, residents said.

The insurrection erupted in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and spread east to the Egyptian border and west along the coast of the Gulf of Sidra, where most of the country’s 6.4 million people live. Most of the eastern region of Cyrenaica is in the hands of rebellious officials, troops and armed civilians, while Tripoli, much of the eastern Tripolitania region and the vast reaches of desert in the south appeared to remain under Gadhafi’s control.

Gadhafi “clearly has enough firepower to make a go of it,” said a U.S. official who was tracking developments from Washington and who requested anonymity. “But his regime continues to fracture. People are quitting left and right.”

In the latest blow to the Libyan leader, a cousin who is one of his closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, said he has defected to Egypt to protest the government’s bloody crackdown, denouncing what he called “grave violations to human rights and human and international laws.”

Gadhaf al-Dam is one of the highest level defections to hit the government, after many ambassadors around the world, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters. Gadhaf al-Dam belonged to Gadhafi’s inner circle, served as his liaison with Egypt and frequently appeared by his side.

Obama, meanwhile, conferred with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Libya’s former colonial master.

Obama administration and European officials were studying a “no-fly” zone, which could prevent military aircraft from attacking protesters and block Gadhafi’s government from transporting troops and foreign mercenaries.

Other steps being pursued at the United Nations and in the European Union are measures to speed humanitarian aid to Libya; block travel by government officials; and freeze Libya’s assets. The Swiss government Thursday ordered a freeze of any Gadhafi assets in Switzerland.

A U.S. government-chartered ferry to evacuate American citizens remained docked at Tripoli for a second day, as bad weather continued to block its departure for Malta. There are 40 U.S. diplomats and relatives, 127 private U.S. citizens and 118 citizens of other countries aboard, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

The State Department, which advised Americans in Libya to “depart immediately,” also is chartering a flight from Tripoli on Friday.