ZAWIYA, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi’s regime showed growing confidence Friday after retaking a strategic city near Tripoli following days of relentless shelling against protesters-turned-rebels as it strengthened its hold on the capital and surrounding areas.

Government forces also captured a key oil town in the east and fought to dislodge rebels who took refuge among towering storage containers of crude oil and gas in nearby facilities.

Zawiya’s main square, which had been a key center of resistance to the west of the capital, bore the scars of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists with green flags rallied amid a heavy presence of pro-Gadhafi troops. There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.

With Gadhafi’s men also on the march against rebels in the east, Western nations appeared in disarray over how to stop the bloodshed.

President Obama said a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Gadhafi regime’s fighter jets remains a possibility as “we are slowly tightening the noose” around Gadhafi, but he stopped short of moving toward military action.

He cited actions already taken, including getting American citizens and embassy workers out of the country, slapping tough United Nations sanctions on Libya and seizing $30 billion in Gadhafi’s assets.

The European Union, meanwhile, said a no-fly zone would need diplomatic backing from international organizations like the Arab League, which was to discuss situation in Libya on Saturday in Cairo.

The capture of Zawiya, a coastal city of about 200,000 people that is near an oil port and refineries, seals off a corridor around the capital and solidifies the government’s control over the western third of the country to the border with Tunisia. The government still faced a rebel challenge in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.

The government had claimed victory in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, on Wednesday, but the rebels seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.

An Associated Press reporter, who was taken by the government with other journalists into the city Friday, said the city was clearly in government control, with Libyan soldiers manning tanks and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

The facades of buildings, including banks and hotels overlooking Martyrs’ Square, were devastated, the streets were strewn with shattered glass and several palm trees had been burned or uprooted.

A government employee said the shelling of the city started on Friday and was nonstop until Wednesday, the day the government claimed victory.

“Many people were killed on Friday. The youth were marching in the square,” he said. “I don’t know whom to blame — the leader, the son of the leader, the government or the rebels. . . . I never imagined that I would see Zawiya, my hometown, like this.”

The 43-year-old man said at least 24 of the protesters had been buried in the square, but the pro-Gadhafi forces had used bulldozers to remove their bodies. The claim couldn’t be independently verified, although the area was flattened.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said the death toll was 14, including rebels and army soldiers.

Anti-Gadhafi graffiti that had covered walls during a previous AP visit also had been painted over. Green flags and pictures of Gadhafi were wrapped around some buildings.

Zawiya’s fall to the opposition about a week into the uprising that began Feb. 15 illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the movement that started with protests in the east and escalated into an armed rebellion. But Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering opponents with airstrikes and artillery fire.

Salem Gnan, a member of the Libyan opposition-in-exile, insisted activists would fight back.

“The youths are determined to return to the city and attack again,” he said from London.

A crackdown by pro-Gadhafi militiamen also apparently has succeeded in stifling attempts at protests in the capital.

Inspired by the ouster of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Gadhafi’s opponents have attempted to hold protests every Friday for the past few weeks, but they have been met each time by a fierce retaliation from militiamen, and no attempts were reported Friday.

Gadhafi’s government sent a text message to Tripoli residents warning imams at mosques against allowing protests after Friday prayers. The message quoted Saudi cleric Sheik Saleh Fawzan, a member of the Saudi Supreme Scholars Council, as saying it was “unacceptable” for any imam “who incites people (or) causes disturbances of the society in any mosque.”

In Tripoli’s Tajoura district — scene of some of the heaviest past protests — police deployed in significant numbers outside the main local Murad Agha mosque to prevent marches after prayers.

Pro-Gadhafi forces also appeared to be turning the tide in the country’s east, bottling up a ragtag force of rebels at a key oil port in a powerful offensive as the conflict is increasingly shaping into a potential civil war.

Despite the onslaught with heavy weaponry, rebel fighters said they were determined to push forward.

“The will of the people is stronger than any weapon,” said rebel commander Ahmed Jibril, manning a checkpoint on the western edge of Brega, the nearby site of a major oil terminal.

The rebels seemed to have a tenuous hold around the oil facilities at Ras Lanouf. Government forces stopped directing their fire at those positions, apparently to avoid blowing up the facility’s infrastructure, according to fighters.

Instead, the pro-Gadhafi troops, positioned in Ras Lanouf’s residential area, were raining rockets and shelling along the main coastal highway, targeting rebel vehicles trying to reinforce and bring supplies to the port, said Mohammed Gherani, a rebel fighter.

At least five rebels were killed in the Ras Lanouf fighting Friday, said Dr. Gebriel Hawadi of the opposition’s Medical Committee in the eastern city of Benghazi. That raised the toll from two days of battles in the area to 13.