By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - A ship with nearly 1,200 Asian and African migrants, many needing medical attention after weeks with little food or water, left the besieged Libyan city of Misrata on Friday for rebel-held Benghazi, an international aid agency said.
The chartered Greek vessel, Ionian Spirit, unloaded 400 tones of aid supplies in Misrata overnight despite shelling on Thursday, the International Organization for Migration said.
"It left in the early hours of this morning with nearly 1,200 people on board," IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya told Reuters.
"The migrants are all very weak and dehydrated with many needing medical attention being provided by medical non-governmental organizations on board the ship which have set up a small hospital on deck," the IOM later said in a statement.
A fresh hail of government rockets crashed into Misrata on Friday after Western allies denounced a "medieval siege" of the city and vowed to keep bombing Muammar Gaddafi's forces until he stepped down.
Residents told the television network Al Jazeera at least 120 rockets hit the city, where hundreds of civilians are reported to have died in a six-week siege.
In all, 1,182 migrants were aboard IOM's first mass evacuation vessel, due to arrive in Benghazi on Friday night. The majority are migrants from Bangladesh and Egypt, but also included people from India, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and Eritrea.
They were among 8,300 migrants who have been living in the open around the port of Misrata without shelter, adequate food, access to clean water or medical care, according to the IOM. Some have camped there since the crisis began two months ago.
"This is the humanitarian crisis in Libya, this is it," Pandya told reporters earlier in the day.
The IOM hoped that the ship would be able to leave Benghazi for Misrata in order to carry out a second evacuation, but after that it would run out of funding. Yet the total sum required, $5 million, is not huge, according to the Geneva-based agency.
"Unless funding materializes immediately for IOM evacuation operations, the Organization will not be able to rescue any more of the migrants from the fighting in Misrata," it said.
Migrants in Misrata, Tripoli, Sabah and many other towns and cities were stranded without the means to survive the crisis.
"They are the forgotten victims of the crisis and shouldn't be," said Pasquale Lupoli, IOM's regional representative for the Middle East, based in Cairo.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)