MISRATA, Libya - Less than two weeks after wresting itself free from a brutal siege and pushing Moammar Gadhafi's forces out of rocket range, the rebel-held city of Misrata is taking its first steps toward normalcy.
The city, the only major urban center in western Libya under rebel control, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since the Libyan uprising began Feb. 15.
The ferocity of the struggle over Misrata is evident downtown in the charred hulks of tanks, pockmarked and blown-out buildings, and sand berms across intersections.
"Things are getting better," Zarouk Tanashi said at his shoe store near the city's center. "Shops are opening, there are people buying things, and people are on the streets again."
Electricity is being restored, many of the checkpoints have come down, and the availability - and variety - of food is improving.
"A month ago, there was nothing," vendor Abdullah Sadi said as he surveyed the heaps of fresh carrots, tomatoes, red onions, and potatoes that covered his tables.
At the Misrata Polyclinic, the main hospital and an early target of shelling by Gadhafi forces, the smell of fresh paint filled the halls as volunteers slapped on a final coat on the white walls.
Misrata, near the Gadhafi stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, is a powerful symbol for both sides. Other rebel strongholds are in the east.
Gadhafi's troops laid siege to Misrata in mid-March, pounding the city of 600,000 for weeks.
Hundreds - civilians and combatants alike - were killed before the rebels pushed out the government troops. The front lines now lie at least 13 miles outside the city, leaving the heart of Misrata out of range of Gadhafi's heavy weapons.
A rebel commander who gave his name only as Hamza said his fighters repelled a government tank advance Monday morning, capturing 15 soldiers. He said no rebels were killed or captured.
Hamza said the fighters' current goal was to keep the city safe, not to advance.
The highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in the Middle East was in Benghazi, the eastern city that is the de facto rebel capital, in a show of support Monday.
And in an escalation of their effort against Gadhafi, France and Britain said they would deploy attack helicopters to help the rebel cause.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the helicopters would be used to more precisely target military equipment in crowded urban areas and avoid civilian casualties.
A State Department statement called the visit by Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, "another signal of the U.S.'s support" for the rebels' National Transitional Council, which it called "a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people."
Also Monday, top Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed on a resolution backing the limited U.S. involvement in the NATO-led military campaign against Libya.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts and John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, introduced the resolution Monday just days after the legal deadline for President Obama to seek congressional authorization of the military action expired.
The nonbinding measure calls on Obama to submit to Congress a description of U.S. policy objectives before and after Gadhafi. The resolution also asks Obama to regularly consult with Congress.