Libya's Misrata comes under heavy bombardment: rebels

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi bombarded Misrata on Sunday, a day after rebels celebrated the pullback of government troops from the western Libyan city, a rebel spokesman said.

"The situation is very dangerous," rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said by telephone from Misrata. "Gaddafi's brigades started random bombardment in the early hours of this morning. The bombardment is still going on."

Captured government troops said on Saturday they had been ordered to retreat from Misrata -- the only major rebel-held city in western Libya -- after a siege of nearly two months, and rebels fighting to overthrow Gaddafi had claimed victory.

But on Sunday, government forces bombarded three residential areas and the city centre, including Tripoli Street, the thoroughfare which has been the scene of intense fighting in recent weeks, Abdelsalam said. Another rebel spokesman, Ahmed Hassan, said at least one person was killed and 12 wounded.

Hundreds have been killed in the fighting for Misrata, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis in the besieged city.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov phoned Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi on Saturday to urge Tripoli to implement United Nations Security Council resolutions and end attacks on civilians.

"Lavrov said that the most important issue now is to stop the bloodshed and sufferings of the civilian population," the Russian foreign ministry said on its website on Sunday.

But rebels in their eastern stronghold Benghazi said they had no expectations of an early end to fighting in Misrata.

"I don't think this is a real withdrawal," rebel military spokesman Ahmed Bani told Reuters.

He suggested government loyalists may be trying to stoke tensions between Misrata and neighbouring towns, and that Gaddafi's troops might return to the city later under the guise of intervening to protect local tribes from the rebels.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said on Friday the army would "leave it to the tribes and the people around Misrata to deal with the situation whether by using force or using negotiations."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC he doubted Gaddafi's forces were really going to withdraw. "This may be cover for using more insurgent type warfare without any uniforms and without tanks."

Rebels Say They Need Weapons

Britain and France have been leading air strikes against Gaddafi's forces in an operation mandated by the U.N. Security Council on March 17 to protect civilians in Libya.

The United States has also deployed Predator drones, using the unmanned plane for the first time on Saturday to attack the site of a multiple rocket launcher near Misrata.

Rebels have so far, however, been unable to advance from the east as they fight back-and-forth battles with Gaddafi's troops on the coastal road between the towns of Ajdabiyah and Brega.

Rebel spokesman Bani said the rebels in the east were still outmatched by the superior firepower of Gaddafi's troops.

"If we obtain weapons, I think we would be able to solve this problem in maximum one month," he said.

Western countries, reluctant to be further dragged into a conflict in a third Muslim country after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been unwilling to arm the rebels. But Britain and France have said they will send military advisors and Italy is considering sending military trainers.

Western powers have been bombing Libyan positions for more than a month. The United States, Britain and France say they will not stop their air war until Gaddafi leaves office.

Given the stalemate in the east, the announcement that Gaddafi's troops were pulling out of Misrata was the first suggestion in weeks of a shift in the balance of the war.

On Saturday, rebels in Misrata celebrated their success.

"Misrata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi's forces, some are killed and others are running away," a rebel spokesmen said by telephone from the city.

One government soldier, Khaled Dorman, among a group of 12 being brought to hospital for treatment in Misrata, told Reuters that, "We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday."

But the mood of victory among the rebels appeared to be short-lived. By late on Saturday, Al Jazeera television reported that heavy fighting continued around a hospital in western Misrata being used as a base by Gaddafi's forces.


Libya's official JANA news agency said on Saturday Prime Minister Mahmoudi held separate telephone conversations with Russia's Lavrov and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

While speaking with Papandreou he "reiterated Libya's commitment to United Nations resolutions", JANA said.

The Libyan government has repeatedly made calls for ceasefires but rebels say they are not matched by its actions.

Russia, which has criticised Western air strikes, is "prepared to work with the African Union and the U.N. to move the situation to political and diplomatic channels," the Russian foreign ministry said.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi crossed into Tunisia on Saturday and then flew to the capital Tunis, a Tunisian security source said. It was not clear where Obeidi, who held talks in Cyprus earlier this month, would go next. Cypriot officials denied he was heading their way.

[Source: By Alexander Dziadosz, Reuters, Benghazi, 24Apr11]

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