By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi attacked Misrata's eastern flank on Friday, forcing residents to flee, but rebels said they repelled the assault.
A rebel spokesman said government troops had advanced on the heavily populated Esqeer district in an effort to loosen the rebels' grip on Misrata, where families are crammed together in the few remaining safe districts.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it expected a humanitarian vessel it had chartered to reach Misrata by midday on Saturday but gave no details of the relief cargo it was carrying.
"The attack from the east has been repelled now and the (pro-Gaddafi) forces have been pushed back," a rebel spokesman, who gave his name as Hassan al-Misrati, told Reuters by telephone.
A second rebel said Gaddafi's troops had deployed a tank along Tripoli street to try to assert control of the strategic highway, which leads into the city center from the western outskirts, after rebels attacked government sniper positions.
Rebels barricaded parts of the main artery with shipping containers full of sand and stones to try to isolate the gunmen. Gemal Salem said the rebels destroyed the lower levels of the multi-storey Ta'ameen building, stranding dozens of snipers.
"Now they are totally blocked. They are under siege in the building. They cannot receive back-up, nor can they leave," Salem told Reuters by telephone.
Residents say they and thousands of migrant workers trapped in Misrata face shortages of basic foodstuffs and have only sporadic supplies of water and electricity. Doctors in the past few days have said the hospitals are overwhelmed.
Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because the Libyan authorities have not allowed journalists to report freely from the city.
Rebel fighters said the plight of Misrata's growing population of displaced people threatened to become a serious problem. Families are crammed into houses in the few safe districts of Misrata and seeking refuge in schools.
"They have been turned into refugee camps," said Misrati. "When will this end, how will it end? God knows."
Misrata's rebel force called on foreign powers to supply them with arms.
"(NATO's) air strikes seem to be inefficient and we do not want them to send troops in, so the only solution left is to arm us," said Salem, a member of the rebels' media committee.
NATO says protecting Misrata's civilians is a priority.
ICRC spokesman Christian Cardon said the agency's relief shipment was due in Misrata by midday on Saturday. The aid follows a delivery of food and medical supplies by the U.N. World Food Programme on Thursday.
"Meetings continue in Tripoli," he added, referring to talks that started more than a week ago between senior ICRC officials and Libyan government officials to increase the agency's access to civilians caught in the conflict.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)