Libyan forces, rebels face off in divided Misrata

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 28, 2011 6:55 PM
Libyan forces, rebels face off in divided Misrata

By Maria Golovnina

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi both claimed control over parts of Misrata on Monday and fighting appeared to persist in the fiercely contested city.

The Libyan government took a group of foreign journalists to a suburb of Libya's third largest city, east of the capital Tripoli, saying Misrata has been "liberated".

With the constant crackle of automatic fire ringing out around the city, Misrata bore the marks of intense fighting, and plumes of smoke rose high above its dusty skyline.

Houses were riddled with bullet holes. Windows were smashed and rubble littered its deserted streets. "Down with Gaddafi," said graffiti scrawled on one wall.

No civilians were in sight and residential houses appeared abandoned. A herd of camels quietly crossed a street strewn with smouldering rubble and fallen electricity poles.

Burned hulks of military and civilian vehicles and blown-up fuel tanks and shipping containers were scattered about.

Areas north of Tripoli Street in southern Misrata which appeared to be under state control were off limits to visiting journalists, and there was gunfire from that direction.

A small crowd of Gaddafi supporters, including children, waved flags in front of a Libyan state television camera broadcasting live images to Libya's seven million people from what it described as "liberated Misrata".

"Misrata is ours. There are still some bad guys in other parts, but Gaddafi is winning, the city is ours," said Abdul Karim, a local resident, a green bandana around his head.

A Libyan army officer said rebel forces had been pushed out to the northern part of the city.

"Yes there are still some bad guys. We squeezed them out, there are less than 100 of them. We control the city," he said.

Nearby, soldiers manned checkpoints and rag-tag bands of government militiamen stood in front of battered buildings.

Several pro-Gaddafi gunmen were visible on rooftops. Anti-aircraft guns pointed into the sky and tanks were hidden under large leafy trees.

The atmosphere was nervous, and soldiers were on edge. As distant gunfire intensified, panicked government minders herded journalists into their vehicles and rushed out of the city before dark.

Outside Misrata, a coastal road leading to Tripoli was firmly under government control. Checkpoints were reinforced with anti-aircraft guns. Slabs of concrete blocked the highway.

DIVIDED CITY

Earlier, rebels confirmed pro-Gaddafi forces had gained control in parts of Misrata -- a sprawling coastal city of 300,000 perched in the idyllic hills east of Tripoli.

Although rebels have made recent advances in the east, Misrata was the only city under their control in the west. International organizations have expressed concern about humanitarian conditions in the besieged city.

Water and electricity supplies have been cut to the central parts of the city, but the government denies any role in this.

On Monday, Libya announced a ceasefire against what it called "terrorist groups" in Misrata but Ali, a rebel spokesman, said this did not change the situation on the ground.

"There is no ceasefire," he said by satellite telephone. "About 15 to 30 minutes ago, they started randomly firing tank and artillery shells on the city and their snipers are still shooting at people."

Rebel Saadoun al-Misrati said pro-Gaddafi forces had been trying to advance on the eastern front and rebels were heavily engaged with them. "We are determined not to allow them to enter the main street to the east as they did with Tripoli Street."

Rebels and a resident said eight people were killed when forces loyal to Gaddafi resumed attacks on Sunday.

The Libyan army officer denied there were casualties among civilians. "Civilians are happy. Everything you are hearing is a lie. The function of our army is to save the people and to protect the leader. We cannot kill our own people," he said.

Simon Brooks, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in eastern Libya, said several aid organizations had delivered humanitarian relief supplies to Misrata by boat in recent days, even as they continue to seek permission from Libyan authorities to expand help in the west.

"The humanitarian situation there is fairly grave, fairly dire," he told Reuters. "Supplies are going in by boat." (Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat, Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Dina Zayed in Cairo; writing by Maria Golovnina, Adam Tanner and Marie-Louise Gumuchian, editing by Peter Millership)