We’ve written about Zawiyah before. The regime’s been trying to recapture the city for days, mainly because it’s the closest rebel stronghold to Tripoli. If they can pull it off, it’ll split the country into a western loyalist half and a rebel eastern half, giving Qaddafi some territorial leverage. Reading the British media reports of what’s happening there, though, it sounds like they’re not so much trying to retake the area as simply to flatten it. And doing a damned good job, too: An eyewitness tells the BBC, “I don’t know how many are dead – they tore Zawiya down to ashes.” More from Sky News, whose phone chat with someone on the scene is embedded below:

He told Sky News: “Here, it is chaos. Buildings completely crumbled, mosques brought down to ashes, blood flowing through the streets.

“No human should go through this… what kind of human would do this to another human?”

He added: “This is a completely full attack. Approximately 50 tanks have been bombarding the city, crushing everything in sight.

“It started at 10am today and still hasn’t finished. There are now a couple of aircraft hovering.”

Supposedly rebels still control the center of the town, despite the tanks and occasional airstrikes. I’m not sure which way this cuts on a no-fly zone, actually: It’s palpably clear by now that the White House and Pentagon (especially) would rather not impose one, and that if they change their minds, it’ll only be as part of an international effort. Sky claims that airstrikes are being used on the town, but they seem to be a minor, supporting element of the attack — a reality noted by the U.S. ambassador to NATO yesterday in arguing against a NFZ. If NATO institutes one anyway and Qaddafi’s tanks start rolling over people on the ground, it’ll be more humiliating for the west than inaction would be.

The rebels’ provisional governing council offered this morning to drop any international criminal complaints against Qaddafi if he scrams within 72 hours. Yesterday’s rumors notwithstanding, it seems he’s not going anywhere. A question for the defense experts in our audience, then: Since Britain and France are the ones spearheading the no-fly resolution at the UN, why can’t they impose a NFZ themselves (with logistical support from the U.S.)? We’re a bit overextended at the moment, and Obama’s allegedly worried about leaving American fingerprints on yet another theater of military action in the Middle East. Meanwhile, France and the UK each have an aircraft carrier in service that could be used to keep Qaddafi’s planes grounded. So why can’t they go it alone? Is it a matter of not having enough planes to provide round-the-clock air cover, or something else?

Update: No sooner do I ask the question than an answer appears.