Libyan rebels make gains in Misurata

Opposition forces circumvent troops loyal to Gaddafi in west of besieged city, but fighting still ongoing.

    Intense street fighting continued in Misurata on Saturday, killing at least 10 and wounding dozens more [Al Jazeera]

    Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are locked in a fierce battle for control of the Libyan city of Misurata, amid reports that loyalists of the embattled leader had retreated to the outskirts of the city under opposition fire.

    Government forces pounded besieged Misurata, the country's third largest city and the main opposition stronghold in the west, killing at least 10 people and wounding dozens of others on Saturday.

    Earlier in the day, pro-democracy forces had declared Misurata "free".


    "Misurata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi's forces, some are killed and others are running away," Gemal Salem, a spokesman for pro-democracy forces, told the Reuters news agency by telephone from the city.

    However despite these claims, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Misurata, Andrew Simmons, said the western port city has "not been liberated at this stage".

    He said that the pro-democracy forces have, however, made "major gains".

    "I've been told by a number of opposition spokespeople that they have made major gains in the west of the city and that's corroborated by other sources I've spoken to.
    "They have actually managed to get around the Gaddafi forces blocking them near the western gate and that is quite a significant development for the rebel forces," he said.

    Hospitals 'overwhelmed'

    Soldiers captured by pro-democracy fighters on Saturday said the army had been ordered to retreat from the western port city.

    Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons says the besieged city of Misurata has "not been liberated at this stage"

    "The rebels attacked us while we were withdrawing from Misurata near a bridge this morning," said Ayad Muhammad, a young soldier.

    A doctor told the AFP news agency that the city's hospital has been overwhelmed with an influx of casualties, including government soldiers.

    "Since eight o'clock this morning, we have received 10 dead and 50 wounded, which is usually the number for a full day," Khalid Abu Salra said at the main Hikma hospital in Misurata.

    "We're overwhelmed, overwhelmed. We lack everything: personnel, equipment and medicines."

    Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between rebels and government forces in the city.

    Shift in tactics

    The Libyan pro-democracy forces have been trying since mid-February to end Gaddafi's 41-year-old rule but have struggled against his more experienced and better equipped forces.

    The US military, meanwhile, confirmed its air force carried out its first Predator missile strike in Libya on Saturday, but gave no details.

    Saturday's upsurge in the battle for Misurata comes after the Gaddafi government said its soldier had been issued an "ultimatum" by local tribes to stop the rebellion in the city, 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli.

    Click on image for comprehensive coverage on Libya

    Libyan officials late on Friday acknowledged that the siege had been broken when pro-democracy forces seized the port and that NATO air strikes had taken their toll.

    "The tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical solution, but it doesn't work, with the air strikes it
    doesn't work," Khaled Kaim, the Libyan deputy foreign minister, said from Tripoli.

    "The situation in Misurata will be eased, will be dealt with by the tribes around Misurata and the rest of Misurata's people and not by the Libyan army."

    Abdelsalam, a spokesman for the pro-democracy fighters in Misurata, said pro-Gaddafi tribes were in a minority in the area.

    "There are two small pro-Gaddafi settlements outside Misurata. They make less than one per cent of the population of Misurata and the surrounding area.

    "Those people know that when Gaddafi's regime falls, they will fall with it," Abdelsalam added, predicting the government would boost their strength by paying mercenaries to pose as tribesmen.

    Hours after the government's announcement of a shift in tactics in Misurata, NATO bombs struck what appeared to be a bunker near Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli.

    Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna sheds light on the role
    'tribes' are playing in the battle for Libya

    Reuters reporters who were part of a guided government tour for foreign reporters said the area was surrounded by a wall and guarded by watchtowers and soldiers.

    They saw two large holes in the ground where the bombs had torn through soil and reinforced concrete, to pierce what appeared to be an underground bunker.

    There was mixed reaction to the government's announcement about changing tactics.

    Mustafa bin Sweid, a doctor at Misurata hospital, was sceptical about the government's withdrawal announcement, saying: "We don't believe anything that Gaddafi's people say. Just listen to the sounds of the mortars … they're lying."

    Another doctor told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Gaddafi's forces were on the defensive, adding: "I don't think they would do this for tactical reasons. They're humiliated."

    On Friday, pro-democracy forces in Misurata seized control of a downtown office building that had been a base for Gaddafi's snipers and other troops after a furious two-week battle.

    An aid ship chartered by the International Organisation for Migration delivered 160 tonnes of food and medicine to Misurata on Saturday before evacuating around 1,000 stranded refugees, mostly Nigerians.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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