By Hamid Ould Ahmed and Mariam Karouny
ALGIERS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Libyan rebels said a rocket attack on a residential district of Misrata killed 23 civilians on Thursday and warned of an impending government "massacre" if NATO does not intensify its attacks there.
A rebel spokesman said troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi appeared to be deliberately targetting civilians. Most of the dead were reported to be women and children, along with three Egyptian migrant workers waiting to be evacuated.
"A massacre ... will take place here if NATO does not intervene strongly," a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Abdelsalam, told Reuters by telephone from Misrata.
It is hard to independently verify accounts from western Libya because journalists are prevented from reporting freely.
France and the United Kingdom, which are leading the coalition air strikes against Gaddafi's forces, have called for other NATO allies to help intensify NATO operations.
Rebels defending Misrata, their last major enclave in western Libya and the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks, say they are worried by the absence of a clear military strategy to unseat Gaddafi.
Government forces unleashed a barrage of Russian-made rockets on Misrata's Kasr Ahmad district, located near the rebel-controlled port, at dawn and rebels said shelling continued in the city center.
"The death toll has risen to 23 and dozens are wounded. Those killed are civilians and most of them are women and children. We now know that at least three Egyptans were killed in the attack," a rebel spokesman who identified himself as Gemal Salem told Reuters by telephone.
ACUTE FOOD SHORTAGES
Fighting a day earlier killed five civilians and wounded dozens, the rebels added.
Libyan officials say they are fighting armed militia with ties to al Qaeda bent on destroying the North African country.
Thursday's bombardment prevented a Qatari vessel from docking and the ship was still waiting to enter the port, the rebels said. It was not clear what the boat was carrying.
Government troops have laid siege to Misrata for more than six weeks after the city rose up in revolt along with others against Gaddafi's four-decade rule in mid February
International aid agencies and rights groups have warned that a humanitarian disaster is growing in Libya's third-biggest city. Rebels said the situation deteriorates each day.
"There is no baby milk. There is also an acute shortage of food and medicine. People cannot come out to try to buy what they need for fear of being hit by snipers and shells," saidAbdelsalam.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Rabat; editing by Giles Elgood and Paul Taylor)