Forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi have launched counter-offensives against rebel-held areas and fighting is expected to intensify in coming weeks.

With the country teetering on the brink of civil war, several towns have reportedly been pounded with artillery, rockets and gunfire in a dramatic escalation of violence over the weekend.

Gaddafi’s military commanders unleashed air power to halt the opposition’s march towards the capital Tripoli, with reports of helicopters and warplanes being used against anti-government militia.

Meanwhile, the UN has appointed a new envoy on Libya and is to send a humanitarian team as the battle between forces loyal to Gaddafi and rebels intensifies.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon named a former Jordanian minister to deal with Libya and said Col Gaddafi had agreed to allow an assessment team into Tripoli.

The UN’s top humanitarian official also demanded urgent access to the town of Misrata after fierce fighting there.

A statement from Mr Ban’s office said the UN secretary general “notes that civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence, and calls for an immediate halt to the government’s disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets”.

The statement continued: “He stresses that those who violate international humanitarian law or commit grave crimes must be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, six British soldiers from the Special Air Service were released from custody by anti-Gaddafi forces in the east of the country.

The SAS troops returned to Britain, with the small diplomatic team they were accompanying, after being held by rebels near Benghazi.

According to reports from the area, the Britons were on a secret mission to make contact with opposition leaders involved in the struggle against Muammer Gaddafi’s government. At some point over the weekend, they were arrested by rebel forces.