Misrata, Libya Rebel City, Pounded By Gaddafi Forces

04/18/2011 04:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011


BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A chartered ship evacuated nearly 1,000 foreign workers and wounded Libyans from Misrata on Monday as rebels said they had gained ground in fighting with government forces in the besieged city.

"We wanted to be able to take more people out but it was not possible," said Jeremy Haslam, who led the International Organization for Migration (IOM) rescue mission.

"Although the exchange of fire subsided while we were boarding ... we had a very limited time to get the migrants and Libyans on board the ship and then leave."

A rebel spokesman said four civilians were killed and five wounded by government shellfire which pounded Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and the rebels' main stronghold in the west of the country, for a fifth day on Monday.

But rebels also said they had gained ground in fighting on bitterly contested Tripoli Street, a key battleground in the city's seven-week siege by forces loyal to President Muammar Gaddafi.

"The revolutionaries have made progress and are controlling some areas surrounding Tripoli Street, but danger is still there because (Gaddafi's) snipers ... are now using (rocket-propelled grenades) RPGs and bombs," Abdelsalam, a rebel spokesman in Misrata, told Reuters by telephone.

"It is clear Gaddafi wants to wipe out Misrata. NATO's inaction is helping him carry out this plan. Are they waiting for a massacre to happen to realize that they need to change tactics?" Abdelsalam said.

"They need to realize that their large aircraft are no longer useful. Gaddafi changed tactics. this is urban warfare."

Another rebel spokesman raised the death toll from shelling on Sunday to 25, mostly civilians, because several of the wounded had died, and said about 100 people had been wounded.

Evacuees say conditions in Misrata are becoming increasingly desperate. Hundreds of civilians are thought to have been killed.

The Ionian Spirit steamed out of Misrata carrying 971 people, most of them weak and dehydrated migrants mainly from Ghana, the Philippines and Ukraine, heading for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya.

It was the second vessel chartered by the IOM, which took out nearly 1,200 migrants from Misrata last Friday.

Among the rescued group were 100 Libyans, including a child shot in the face, the IOM said in a statement. "...the migrants still in Misrata cannot survive much longer like this," said IOM Middle East representative Pasquale Lupoli.

Pro-Gaddafi forces have also kept up an offensive on the rebels' eastern frontline outpost of Ajdabiyah, a potential rebel staging post to retake the oil port of Brega, 50 miles to the west.
Sunday marked a month since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing force to protect civilians in Libya, leading to an international air campaign.

Despite NATO air strikes against Gaddafi's armor, rebels have been unable to hold gains in weeks of back-and-forth fighting over the coastal towns in eastern Libya.

The popular revolt against Gaddafi's 41-year rule began in earnest on February 17 in the eastern city of Benghazi, and the United States, France and Britain said last week they would not stop bombing Gaddafi's forces until he left power.

But Western countries have ruled out sending ground troops. "... there is no question of invasion or an occupation -- this is not about Britain putting boots on the ground," British Prime Minister David Cameron told Sky News in an interview on Sunday.

The rebels pushed hundreds of kilometers toward the capital Tripoli in late March after foreign warplanes began bombing Gaddafi's positions to protect civilians, but proved unable to hold territory and were pushed back as far as Ajdabiyah.

JUST LIKE IRAQ?

In Tripoli, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, said in an interview that the world had gone to war with Libya based on nothing more than rumor and propaganda.

"The biggest issue is the terrorists and the armed militia," Saif Gaddafi told the Washington Post. "Once we get rid of them, everything will be solved."

Government forces were hunting down "terrorists" in Misrata just as American forces did in Fallujah in Iraq.

"It's exactly the same thing. I am not going to accept it, that the Libyan army killed civilians. This didn't happen. It will never happen," he said.

Once they were beaten, it would be time to talk of national reconciliation and democracy under a new constitution that would reduce his father's role to a symbolic one, the Post quoted Saif Gaddafi as saying.

The London-educated son was once seen as a potential reformer but his comments indicated that Gaddafi was in no mood to compromise despite the international pressure. The rebels have rejected any solution that does not remove Gaddafi and his family from power.

The U.N. humanitarian affairs chief, Valerie Amos, speaking in Benghazi after a visit to Tripoli, said the government had given her no guarantees regarding her call for an overall cessation of hostilities to help the relief effort.

She said she was extremely worried about the situation in Misrata. "No one has any sense of the depth and scale of what is happening there," she said."

(Additional reporting by Ashraf Fahim in Benghazi, Mussab Al-Khairalla in Tripoli, Mariam Karoumy in Beirut, Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Joseph Nasr in Berlin; writing by Angus MacSwan, editing by Tim Pearce)

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