Libyan security forces tried to seize back control of the coastal town of Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, but were driven back by government opponents, witnesses said on Friday.

The strategic town, site of an oil terminal on the main highway into Tripoli, has become the focus of a stand-off between forces loyal to leader Muammar Gadhafi, and civilians - some of them armed - who want an end to his 41 years in power.

"There are corpses everywhere ... It's a war in the true sense of the word," said Akila Jmaa, who crossed over into Tunisia on Friday after travelling from the town. "We need urgent humanitarian aid from all the countries. They cannot leave us alone," he added.

Other witnesses who crossed the Tunisian border said government forces had made several attempts to take control of the coastal town in successive nights of fighting.

Gadhafi has lost control of major centers in the east of the country, including the second largest city Benghazi, to a popular uprising inspired by revolutions in neighboring Egypt and
Tunisia, despite killing hundreds of protesters.

It was not clear if the security forces had given up or were planning fresh assaults on Zawiyah.

"There are army and police checkpoints around Zawiyah but there is no presence inside. I just saw a few unarmed civilians," said Saeed Mustafa who drove through the town on
Friday on his way to the Tunisian border.

Witnesses said tanks were deployed in the town and that residents had captured one of them and stood on top of it.

They described chaotic scenes over the past few days, with most of the fighting focused on a crossroads in the middle of Zawiyah which residents had renamed to honor the dead.

"Seven people were killed by pro-Gadhafi forces. They were buried in Martyr's Square," said Hassan Mohammed, an Egyptian laborer.

Mercenaries allied to Libyan forces, including African ones, also took part in the fighting, several witnesses said.

"Some of them were snipers. They were shooting at protestors from rooftops. There was one sniper who was shot but I heard he was wearing a bullet-proof vest so he lived. He was captured and taken to a mosque by residents," said Mohammed.

The town has been gripped by fear and confusion.

"We were too scared to even leave our houses to buy a few biscuits and a drink," said 17-year-old Haitham Mahmoud, also a laborer.

"People would try to intimidate us with rifles and machetes. After a while we began thinking going outside in the streets would be like walking to your death."

It appears forces loyal to Gadhafi did not want news of the violence to reach the outside world. Several witnesses said soldiers at checkpoints on the way to Tunisia grabbed their
telephones, and took away their sim cards.