By Hamid Ould Ahmed
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Western airstrikes hit positions of Libyan government forces in the rebel-held city of Misrata on Wednesday, but government snipers firing from rooftops killed 16 people, a rebel spokesman said.
The airstrikes temporarily silenced an artillery bombardment from forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but later a doctor reported government forces were closing in on and firing at a local hospital struggling to help hundreds of wounded.
"Government tanks are closing in on Misrata hospital and shelling the area," said the doctor, who was briefly reached by telephone before the line died. "The situation is very serious."
The official spokesman for the rebel national council Hafiz Ghoga told a news conference in Benghazi that 16 people had been killed in Misrata, Libya's third largest city. He added that six people were killed in a bombardment by Gaddafi forces around Zintan, another town in west Libya.
Abdul Basset, a rebel spokesman, said "The shelling is continuing and we fear a massacre. There are about 1000 people in the hospital and most of them are in critical conditions, they can not move or run -- many amputees among them. There are also ten Filipino nurses who we lost contact with on Friday.
"We call on the world to help us. God help us, God help us."
Rebels in Misrata who have been fighting for weeks to hold off attacks welcomed the air strikes, saying they would help even out their battle against heavily-armed government forces.
Unlike the main rebel strongholds in the east of Libya, Misrata is encircled by pro-Gaddafi forces. Residents say dozens of people have been killed in the past few days.
"Now with the air strikes we are more optimistic," Saadoun, a Misrata resident, told Reuters by telephone. "These strikes gives us hope, especially the fact they are precise and are targeting the (Gaddafi) forces and not only the bases."
He said there had been two strikes and, judging from columns of smoke rising up afterwards, they targeted locations in the south-west of the city where pro-Gaddafi forces are positioned.
Another resident said the strikes had hit an air base and military training college about 7 km south of the city center, which pro-Gaddafi forces have been using as their main base for launching attacks on Misrata.
Reports from Misrata were impossible to independently verify as Libyan authorities have prevented journalists from reaching the city, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Libyan officials made no comment on developments in the city.
The air strikes in Misrata followed a warning from the U.S. military that it would, in addition to its mission to destroy anti-aircraft systems, send warplanes to attack Gaddafi's forces if they threaten civilians.
But the air strikes had not stopped snipers loyal to Gaddafi, who have been staked out on rooftops in the center of Misrata for several days.
"The snipers are ... shooting at the hospital and its two entrances are under heavy attack. No one can get in or out," said Saadoun. "We have lost all communication with people inside."
Another resident Sami also said snipers appeared to be targeting people trying to get access to the hospital. "It is very difficult to get in or out of the hospital because of the snipers being positioned there," he said.
"The humanitarian situation is critical because of a shortage of food, water and electricity."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; writing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Matthew Jones)