Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi vows to fight to the "last man and woman" to defend his country as forces loyal to him battled government opponents for control of a key oil installation and an airstrip Wednesday on the Mediterranean coast in a counter-offensive against the rebel-held eastern half of the country.

Opponents of Qaddafi repelled an attack by the Libyan leader's forces trying to retake a key coastal oil installation in a topsy-turvy battle in which shells splashed in the Mediterranean and a warplane bombed a beach where rebel fighters were charging over the dunes. At least five people were killed in the fighting.

The assault on the Brega oil port was the first major regime counteroffensive against the opposition-held eastern half of Libya, where the population backed by mutinous army units rose up and drove out Qaddafi's rule over the past two weeks.

"We will fight until the last man and woman. We will defend Libya from the north to the south," Qaddafi said while addressing supporters and foreign media in a conference hall in the capital Tripoli.

"We will not accept an intervention like that of the Italians that lasted decades," he said during a rambling speech, referring to Italy's colonial rule early in the 20th Century. "We will not accept a similar American intervention. This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya."