By Lamine Chikhi and Mariam Karouny
ALGIERS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi eased their attacks on rebel-held Misrata on Saturday as planes belonging to the Western coalition appeared in the skies above the city, a rebel said.
"The shelling has stopped and now the war planes of allies are above the sky of Misrata. The shelling stopped when the planes appeared in the sky. It seems this is their strategy," the rebel, Saadoun, told Reuters by phone.
He said earlier that pro-Gaddafi forces had launched attacks from the west and east, shelling the city's port with mortars and artillery.
Misrata is the only big rebel stronghold left in the west of Libya and it is cut off from the main rebel force fighting Gaddafi's troops in the east of the country. It has been encircled and under bombardment for weeks.
It was the second time on Saturday that pro-Gaddafi forces had eased their bombardment. A rebel spokesman said earlier the rebels had won some respite in the morning when Western air strikes hit some positions of pro-Gaddafi forces.
Western aircraft and missiles have been increasing their raids on government positions in Misrata.
Saadoun said there had been heavy shelling as tanks advanced from the coastal road toward the city while the port and areas around it were shelled with mortars and artillery.
Thousands of workers, mainly Egyptians, had fled to the port hoping to be rescued, he said.
"It seems his (Gaddafi's) focus now is Misrata," Saadoun said. "He pulled his forces out of Ajdabiyah and Brega so that he can put all his weight in attacking Misrata and winning so he can control the whole west versus losing the whole east."
"This means a massacre after massacre in Misrata and today we saw its first chapter."
Rebels backed by allied air strikes retook the strategic town of Ajdabiyah on Saturday. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi said insurgents had reached the outskirts of the oil terminal town of Brega, west along the Mediterranean coast from Ajdabiyah. This report could not be independently confirmed.
SNIPERS ON ROOFTOPS
A resident said pro-Gaddafi snipers were still shooting at people from rooftops in the center of Misrata and that the death toll among townspeople during the past week had reached 115 people, including several children.
"Gaddafi's men are still controlling the eastern and western gates of the city of Misrata. Snipers continue to target civilians," the resident said by phone.
"They are located on the rooftops of buildings downtown in the city ... We've had 115 killed during the past week."
Reports from Misrata, Libya's third-biggest city about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, could not be verified.
Libyan officials say the rebels are armed gangs linked to al Qaeda who are holding the people of the city hostage.
Accounts from people in Misrata portray a city where the sound of artillery fire and automatic weapons rings out every few minutes.
Doctors at the clinic being used as a makeshift hospital say they are so overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded they have to operate in the corridors and people who have had limbs amputated are sent home to make room for new patients.
One video clip posted on the Internet and identified as coming from Misrata showed a children's hospital with a large hole blown in the wall and, inside, baby incubators covered in concrete dust and debris.
Misrata residents also say they are facing a humanitarian crisis with dwindling food, and water supplies and electricity now cut off. Libyan officials deny deliberately cutting power and water to the city.
Aid agencies were able to bring in supplies via Misrata's Mediterranean port earlier this week but it is uncertain if they can deliver more because control over the port has see-sawed between the rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces.
(Writing by Christian Lowe and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; editing by Elizabeth Piper)