In a sign that forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi may finally be gaining the upper hand in the crisis in Libya, rebel groups have been forced out of the strategic oil port of Ras Lanuf (300 miles east of Tripoli) fleeing relentless barrage of attacks from government forces.

According to reports, hundreds of rebels have fled further east in cars and trucks, under bombardment of rockets and shells.

For days Ras Lanus has come under a merciless offensive from Gaddafi’s troops.

We've been defeated,” one rebel soldier told Agence France Presse (AFP) “They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf.

We don't have any heavy weapons, another rebel fighter told Reuters. There are people with heavier weapons.

One bomb landed on a civilian house in Ras Lanuf, another rebel told Reuters.

I saw ships yesterday and today, said another fighter, Mohd Fadl. Missiles were being fired from them.

A reporter for Al-Jazeera, who has witnessed fighting just outside Ras Lanuf, said: We've been wondering for the last few days about why Gaddafi has not employed his full forces and today we've seen those forces in action. We were caught right in the middle as his forces out-flanked, and then out-bombed and out-shot the opposition forces. There was sustained aerial and artillery and mortar bombardment, and then following in by a flanking movement.

Libyan state TV also said that Gaddafi-backed forces have also expelled rebels from the oil port of Sidra, which is west of Ras Lanuf.

These developments come as France became the first nation on earth to recognize the Libyan rebels and the country;’s legitimate government; and NATO officials meet in Europe to consider imposing a no fly zone over Libya.