SFAX, Tunisia/ BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Gaddafi forces using tanks and snipers are carrying out a "massacre" in Misrata with corpses on the streets and hospitals full of the wounded, evacuees said, with one describing the besieged city as "hell."
Misrata, Libya's third city, rose up with other towns against Muammar Gaddafi's rule in mid-February, and it is now under attack by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
"You have to visit Misrata to see the massacre by Gaddafi," said Omar Boubaker, a 40-year-old engineer with a bullet wound to the leg, brought to the Tunisian port of Sfax by a French aid group. "Corpses are in the street. Hospitals are overflowing."
Stalemate on the frontline of fighting in eastern Libya, defections from Gaddafi's circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting or facing food and fuel shortages prompted a flurry of diplomacy to find a solution to the civil war.
But the evacuees from Misrata had more immediate concerns.
"I could live or die but I am thinking of my family and friends who are stranded in the hell of Misrata," said tearful evacuee Abdullah Lacheeb, who had serious injuries to his pelvis and stomach and a bullet wound in his leg.
"Imagine, they use tanks against civilians. He (Gaddafi) is prepared to kill everyone there ... I am thinking of my family."
Swathed in bandages, evacuees gave some of the most detailed accounts yet of conditions in Misrata, the last major rebel-held city in western Libya which recalled sieges of town and cities in the Bosnian conflict.
U.N.-mandated air strikes to protect civilians have so far failed to halt attacks by the Libyan army, which residents said stationed snipers on rooftops and fired mortars and artillery at populated areas of the city with devastating effect.
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians in Misrata, saying they are fighting armed gangs linked to al Qaeda. Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified as Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from there.
A rebel spokesman said the city was shelled on Monday.
"The shelling started in the early hours of the morning and it's continuing, using mortars and artillery. This is pure terrorism. The shelling is targeting residential areas," the spokesman, called Gemal, told Reuters by telephone, adding:
"We know there are casualties but I don't know how many."
THOUSANDS LEFT BEHIND
A Turkish ship that sailed into Misrata to rescue 250 wounded was protected by Turkish warplanes and warships and had to leave in a hurry after thousands pressed forward on the dock, pleading to be evacuated.
Another ship operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres docked in Sfax in Tunisia with 71 wounded from Misrata. Many had bullet wounds and broken limbs.
Fears of a massacre in Misrata are helping to propel efforts this week to try and secure a ceasefire in the North African oil-producing desert state. Sfax echoed to the sound of sirens as a stream of ambulances ferried the wounded to hospital.
"We cannot do anything against this massacre any more. We ask the Americans and the Europeans to put people on the ground and help us end these crimes," said another injured man, Imed.
A Libyan envoy was in Europe on Monday seeking to end the civil war that has become locked in a battlefield stalemate between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Libya wanted a negotiated political settlement, Greek officials said, because a military solution to the conflict between rag-tag rebels backed by Western air power and Gaddafi's better armed troops now looked impossible.
"The Libyan envoy wanted to convey that Libya has the intention to negotiate," a Greek official said after the visit by Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi. "We don't think that there can be a military solution to this crisis."
Obeidi arrived in Turkey on Monday for the next leg of his mission and a Turkish foreign ministry official said both sides in the conflict had "conveyed that they have some opinions about a possible ceasefire." Obeidi is due in Malta on Tuesday.
Beyond a willingness to talk, there was no sign of what Libya might offer to end the war that is bogged down on a frontline around the eastern oil town of Brega, while civilians are bombarded by Gaddafi forces in western rebel holdouts.
ITALY SAYS GADDAFI MUST QUIT
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who had spoken to Greek officials, dismissed the Libyan envoy's message saying a divided Libya was not acceptable and Gaddafi must quit.
After a meeting with Ali Essawi, a member of the Libyan rebel council looking after foreign affairs, Frattini said Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, backed the rebels.
"A solution for the future of Libya has a pre-condition -- that Gaddafi's regime leaves and is out and that Gaddafi himself and his family leave the country," he said, adding an interim government headed by one of Gaddafi's sons was "not an option."
One diplomat cautioned, however, that any diplomatic compromise -- for example one in which Gaddafi handed over power to one of his sons -- could lead to the partition of Libya.
"Various scenarios are being discussed," said the diplomat. "Everyone wants a quick solution."
If there were eventually to be a ceasefire leading to the partition of Libya, control of revenues from the oil ports, including Brega and Ras Lanuf to the west, would be crucial.
Gaddafi believes the uprising is fueled by Islamist radicals and Western nations who want to control Libya's oil. The rebels, whose stronghold is in the eastern city of Benghazi, want nothing less than the removal of Gaddafi and his circle.
The U.N.-mandated military intervention, in which warplanes have attacked Gaddafi's armor, radars and air defenses, began on March 19 and was intended to protect civilians caught up in fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels.
Neither the Gaddafi troops nor the mostly disorganized rebel force have been able to gain the upper hand on the frontline, despite the Western air power in effect aiding the insurgents.
After chasing each other up and down the coast road linking the oil ports of eastern Libya with Gaddafi's tribal heartland further west, the two sides are stuck around Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 km (15 miles).
Rebels pushed the army out of much of Brega and toward the outskirts of the sprawling oil town on Monday in a slow advance west, but were still facing bombardment with each step.
REBELS MORE ORGANISED
Showing signs of greater organization than in past weeks, rebels moved more cautiously and held ground more stubbornly than before despite facing Gaddafi's better-equipped forces.
"Gaddafi's forces are waiting at the western gate exactly. Any advance by the rebels, they fire at them with mortars," said rebel fighter Youssef Shawadi, a few kilometers from the gate.
Near the university -- a focus of five days of clashes -- thuds and blasts could be heard from around the western gate. Black smoke rose as the two sides fired rockets at each other.
The rebels, who need modern weapons and better training if they are to match Gaddafi's forces, said the army had laid mines and booby-traps as they withdrew west from the university.
With warfare raging in Libya, a senior security official from Algeria said al Qaeda was using the conflict to acquire weapons and smuggle them to a stronghold in northern Mali.
He told Reuters he had information that Al Qaeda's north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had acquired from Libya Russian-made shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles known by the NATO designation SAM-7.
"Several military barracks have been pillaged in this region (eastern Libya) with their arsenals and weapons stores and the elements of AQIM who were present could not have failed to profit from this opportunity," he said, adding:
"If the Gaddafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya ... which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean."
(Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Christian Lowe in Algiers, Ibon Villelabeitia, Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Tarek Amara, Karolina Tagaris in London; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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