The Obama administration has sent teams of CIA operatives into Libya in a rush to gather intelligence on the identity, goals and progress of rebel forces opposed to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, according to U.S. officials.

Such information has become more crucial as the administration and its coalition partners move closer to providing direct military aid or guidance to the disorganized and beleaguered rebel army. Officials said that, though no decision has been made, President Obama, in a covert finding, has authorized preparations to launch such an effort.

In Libya, in the face of a new onslaught by government troops, rebel forces fled eastward Wednesday from cities and towns they had captured just days ago. But Gaddafi suffered a political defeat with the defection to Britain of his foreign minister, Musa Kusa, the most senior official thus far to break ranks.

Kusa, one of the most senior figures in Gaddafi’s government, quit to protest attacks on civilians by government forces, news agencies reported, citing an account from an associate. Kusa served as chief of Gaddafi’s intelligence apparatus from 1994 until 2009, when he was appointed foreign minister. Kusa previously had been considered likely to stick with Gaddafi to the end.

Kusa traveled to Tunisia on Monday for what was described as a “private” visit, then flew to London Wednesday afternoon. His apparent decision to defect is a victory for Western officials, who have urged members of Gaddafi’s inner circle to abandon the Libyan leader.

“We can confirm that Musa Kusa arrived at Farnborough Airport on 30 March from Tunisia,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement. “He travelled here under his own free will. He has told us that he is resigning his post. We are discussing this with him and we will release further detail in due course.”

In Libya, after having been driven back from the town of Bin Jawwad on Tuesday, the rebels retreated through the oil hubs of Ras Lanuf and Brega on Wednesday en route to the strategic city of Ajdabiya, fighters reported. Rebels in a motley assortment of vehicles raced eastward on both lanes of the coastal highway toward Ajdabiya after coming under shelling in Brega from the more heavily armed Gaddafi forces, witnesses said.

The headlong retreat demonstrated the limits of the rebels’ fighting abilities in the face of superior firepower and military organization on the loyalist side. It also underscored how dependent the anti-Gaddafi forces have become on airstrikes and missile attacks launched against the loyalist army by a Western-led coalition that was formed less than two weeks ago to enforce a no-fly zone and to protect Libyan civilians.

After airstrikes decimated government forces in Ajdabiya last week, the rebels recaptured the city Saturday and quickly took back Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad in a westward push that they vowed would soon overrun Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and stronghold on the Gulf of Sidra. But a loyalist counterattack rapidly drove the rebels back the way they had come, leaving them pleading for more Western airstrikes.

“We are going to Ajdabiya,” one rebel said as he pulled out of Brega, Reuters news agency reported. “We will gather there and, God willing, we will head back to Brega today.”

A rebel spokesman, Col. Ahmad Bani, said later that fighting was underway on the eastern and western sides of Brega, although many rebels had pulled back to Ajdabiya.

Bani called on NATO to intervene, saying that since Gaddafi’s forces had entered the civilian towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega, “they should be taken out.” NATO is taking command of the U.S.-led coalition that began launching airstrikes and missile attacks against government forces on March 19.

Bani acknowledged that rebel troops are woefully outmanned and underequipped after pro-Gaddafi forces sent them fleeing Wednesday, and he gave a more somber assessment of Gaddafi’s military power than in past statements, saying that his reinforcements “probably” stretched far beyond his home town of Sirte. At the same time, he tried to quell fears that Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital, was in imminent danger of falling into Gaddafi’s hands.

“Our volunteer forces in the front have only got light weapons and are facing a very large military might,” Bani said as evening fell.

In Gaddafi-controlled western Libya, government officials took journalists to meet the relatives of a boy who appeared to be the first confirmed civilian death in the 12-day old air war, in a village on the edge of Gharyan, a town about 60 miles south of Tripoli.

According to family members, a coalition warplane struck an ammunition depot about three miles away on Tuesday, igniting a blaze that triggered a rocket that crashed into the home of 18-month-old Serajadin al-Suwaissi. The rocket only partially exploded, but a piece of burning shrapnel struck the boy’s head as he slept on the couch, and he died in a hospital about 12 hours later, the relatives said.

“I am feeling angry about the airstrikes. This isn’t civilian protection at all,” said the boy’s uncle, Abdel Hakim al-Suwaissi, as somber women gathered in the home to pay condolences.

The Libyan government has repeatedly claimed that the strikes have caused multiple casualties, but it has offered little evidence to support those assertions.

The French Defense Ministry said Wednesday that its planes carried out a strike Monday night against “a munitions depot in the region of Gharyan.”

There were reports earlier Wednesday that Western warplanes carried out airstrikes near Ras Lanuf, the site of a major oil refinery, petrochemical plant and oil pipelines. But there was no immediate confirmation.

Opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani played down the rebel retreat, voicing optimism that the losses would soon be recouped. “Whether we advance 50 kilometers or retreat 50 kilometers . . . it’s a big country,” he told reporters in Benghazi. “They will go back the next day.”

Meanwhile, Gaddafi has sent more troops to the besieged cities of Misurata and Zintan, Gheriani said. Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, is about 130 miles east of Tripoli, and Zintan is 100 miles southwest of the capital.

Misurata was relatively quiet for much of the day Wednesday, and a ship docked carrying food, medicine and 11 European journalists, who spent the day with rebels in the city, according to a doctor at Misurata’s hospital. But shortly after the ship left at nightfall, government forces that have been laying siege to the city for the past five weeks resumed shelling the port area.

The lull enabled ambulances to reach four victims who had apparently been injured in fighting the previous day but had been unable to reach the hospital because of snipers on the streets, the doctor said. Two were Nigerians who had bled to death, and two were Libyans killed by shrapnel, he said.

The continued rebel pull-back in eastern Libya came a day after world leaders convening in London insisted that Gaddafi step down but offered no new suggestions for how to dislodge him from power.

Although the 40 world leaders pledged humanitarian aid and continued airstrikes to protect civilians, they indicated that it would be up to the Libyans themselves to force Gaddafi out, leaving it unclear how they were supposed to do so.

The question of whether to arm the rebels was not publicly discussed, nor was the question of how to release frozen Libyan assets to help fund them. But the leaders attending the conference made it clear that the military campaign in Libya would not end until Gaddafi had gone.

In an interview with NBC News that aired Tuesday evening, President Obama said direct foreign assistance to the rebels initially would be humanitarian and other non-lethal supplies such as communications equipment, transportation and medical supplies. Asked about supplying arms to the rebels, Obama said, “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in. We’re still making an assessment.” He added, “Operations to protect civilians continue to take out Gaddafi’s forces, his tanks, his artillery on the ground. And that will continue for some time.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that his country also does not rule out supplying arms to the rebels but has not yet decided whether to do so. He told Parliament that a U.N. arms embargo applies to all of Libya although arms deliveries could be justified under a March 17 U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

But China and Russia are stepping up complaints about the Western-led military intervention in Libya. In Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly rebuked visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, saying that force will not resolve the conflict in Libya, news agencies reported. Russia and China abstained in voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution, which was approved 10-0.

“If the military action brings disaster to innocent civilians, resulting in an even greater humanitarian crisis, then that is contrary to the original intention of the Security Council resolution,” Hu told Sarkozy, according to Chinese state media.

In London, the British government announced it has ordered five pro-Gaddafi Libyan diplomats, including the Libyan military attache, to leave the country within a week. Britain said it took the action “to underline our grave concern at the regime’s behavior” and because the five “could pose a threat to our security” if they remained in Britain.

As the West applied pressure for Gaddafi to end his 41-year rule, Uganda said it would consider an asylum application if it received one from the Libyan strongman.

In Benghazi, the mood Wednesday evening was grimmer than in recent days, when jubilant rebels quickly regained three key towns in the wake of coalition airstrikes.

Now, the city’s inhabitants joke grimly about the possibility of an imminent attack by Gaddafi’s forces.

“We won’t have to worry about finding a car to go find the front line because Gaddafi will make it easy for us and bring the front line here,” said Tarek Mustafa Kashbur, a Benghazi resident.

Asked if Benghazi would fall absent a NATO strike in the next 24 hours, Bani, the rebel military spokesman, said, “NATO has already indicated that they will follow U.N. Resolution 1973 to the T, to protect the civilian population, and we believe the right people will be here on time.”

He denied an assertion by Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe and head of the U.S. European Command, that there were “flickers” of al-Qaeda among the rebel fighters.

“We don’t have this type of fundamentalist thinking or attitude, so it’s not on our part to be organizing any al-Qaeda cells within our ranks. If – and with a stress on if – if there are Libyans who were previously associated with al-Qaeda around the world and they have now come back, they are Libyans fighting for the freedom of Libya.”

Bani also denied that any foreign fighters had joined the rebels’ ranks, and he said it was impossible to assess the number of dead and injured among the rebel fighters.

Representatives of the Tabo tribe, which lives in the Libyan desert, pledged Wednesday they would protect oil fields for the rebels.

Sly reported from Tripoli. Branigin reported from Washington.