NATO warplanes pounded forces loyal to Libyan leader Moaamar Gadhafi attacking the rebel-held city of Misrata, blasting fighting vehicles advancing on the port that serves as the besieged city's sole lifeline, a NATO spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The battle for Misrata has become the focal point of the uprising against Gadhafi's regime, and the near-constant shelling of the city by government troops over the past two months has spurred calls for more forceful international intervention to stop the bloodshed.
In Brussels, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid said the shelling of the Misrata port has worsened the already bad humanitarian situation in the city and that the 27-nation group has set aside more than euro100 million ($146 million) to address pressing humanitarian needs.
"The port shelling hampers vessel rotation and therefore hinders further evacuations," said commissioner Kristalina Georgieva. "The delivery of food, medical supplies and other relief items has been interrupted, and it is close to impossible for our humanitarian partners to evacuate the wounded and civilians by sea."
A resident in Misrata said the city's food stocks were dwindling, and that relief supplies brought by U.N. aid agencies were not enough to meet requirements. The resident, who did not want to be named because he feared retribution, said locals were suffering from a shortage of drinking water.
The NATO airstrike, which took place Tuesday night and sent giant plumes of smoke into the air, helped repulse an attack by Gadhafi's forces on the city's vital port complex, alliance spokeswoman Carmen Romero said, also in Brussels.
"NATO forces moved quickly to break up a force advancing on Misrata port," Romero said. "Several NATO aircraft were directed to the area, and following careful assessment of the risk to civilians, our pilots struck."
Damage assessments showed that six military vehicles and seven "technicals" _ civilian trucks equipped with machine guns or rocket launchers _ were hit. One surface-to-air missile site near Misrata was also destroyed, she said.
On Wednesday, the port bore signs of the ferocity of the shelling a day earlier.
Rockets had blasted gapping holes in the roofs of two warehouses, and blown out the windows of another building. A pillar of black smoke from a burning heap of tires ignited by the bombardment billowed over the port, and nearby the charred shells of some 250 brand new cars, all torched in the shelling, smoldered.
With Gadhafi's troops besieging the city on all sides by land, the port has become a key point in the battle for Misrata, and the assault by pro-Gadhafi forces Tuesday temporarily suspended the flow of aid and people.
The Albanian passenger ferry Red Star 1, which was carrying aid and two ambulances, was forced to spend the night at sea, and only docked late Wednesday morning. Workers unloaded its 10 containers of aid and prepared to take on refugees looking to flee the battered city.
The Libyan government has denied that it engages in indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers.
The United Nations Security Council used evidence of attacks on civilians as grounds for its resolution authorizing an international campaign of airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces which has neutralized much of their heavy weapons and staved off total rebel defeat in the east.
British Defense Minister Liam Fox said Tuesday that the airstrikes have helped put the regime on its "back foot" and aided the rebels in making progress, though for the past weeks, there has been little movement on any of the war's fronts.
"There is little doubt across the alliance that this key contribution has proven to be of immense value protecting civilians in Misrata and have helped opposition forces to defend themselves against this brutal regime there," he said.
Maj. Gen. John Lorimer, British military spokesman, said British fighter jets destroyed a battle tank, eight support vehicles and a surface-to-air missile facility in airstrikes around Misrata on Saturday and Sunday. Eight rocket launcher vehicles were also damaged and three armored personnel carriers targeted.
British jets also flew sorties on Monday around Brega and Ajdabiya, and Yafran, firing on a tank near Mizda and a self-propelled gun close to Yafran, Lorimer said.
AP writers Robert Burns in Washington, David Stringer in London and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.