Libya rebels battle for Misurata airport

Fighting continues after Libyan leader's forces are pushed back from city's sea port.

    The besieged city's port is a lifeline for those seeking to escape to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi [Al Jazeera]

    Libyan rebels have fought to take over control of Misurata's airport, after pushing back Muammar Gaddafi's forces from the embattled city's sea port as the oil-rich country's tribes urged the longtime leader to relinquish power.

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    Rebels in Libya's third-largest city said they were confident victory was "very close" for them in the strategic port city as a UN panel arrived in Libya to investigate violence and human rights abuses.

    "Our freedom fighters have managed to defeat the soldiers of Gaddafi" by forcing them out of Misurata, Khalid Azwawi, head of the local transition committee, said late on Wednesday.

    "They managed to force them to leave, but not very far. That's why Gaddafi is trying to bomb the port," he said.

    There are also reports of heavy clashes between Gaddafi forces and rebels in the desert town of Kufra in Libya's remote southeast, Al Jazeera has learned.

    Evacuation of refugees

    While heavy shelling prevented ships from docking in Misurata to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate the wounded, the International Organisation for Migration said it managed to evacuate 935 refugees to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, on Thursday.

    The vessel, Red Star, had been held off the Libyan coast as forces loyal to Gaddafi shelled the besieged city's port, a lifeline for those seeking to escape to the rebel stronghold.

    Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from onboard the vessel before it docked on Thursday, said 25 people were seriously injured, of whom three are in critical condition.

    "As long as pro-Gaddafi forces retain their longterm artillery capability, then any calm that might return to Misurata's port would be misguided. It has been clear all along that Gaddafi will go at any length in this battle just as it's blatantly evident that he wants to cut off this lifeline," he said.

    Rebel fighters backed by NATO air strikes said on Wednesday they drove Gaddafi's troops out of missile range of the port of Misurata, an aid conduit for the city of half a million people under siege for more than seven weeks.

    "The people of Libya are brave and defiant but we need access to oil revenues so that we can feed, protect and defend our families"

    Rebels' Transitional National Council

    "Significant Gaddafi forces" were concentrated around the airport a few kilometres west of the besieged city, Ibrahim Bet-Almal, a rebel military chief, said, noting "co-operation between [his] forces and NATO".

    "We're trying to clear this area" on the city's outskirts which was rocked by continuous explosions on Wednesday night as missiles and rockets fell randomly, he said.

    Rebels defending Zintan, in the mountains southwest of Tripoli, also pushed back Gaddafi forces who bombarded the town with at least 20 Grad rockets, wounding three people and damaging a hospital, before retreating.

    An AFP team in the town late on Wednesday witnessed rebels firing off celebratory salvos into the night as a NATO warplane flew overhead.

    Financial lifeline

    The United States opened another lifeline by authorising Americans to buy oil, gas and petroleum products from the rebels' Transitional National Council.

    "The people of Libya are brave and defiant but we need access to oil revenues so that we can feed, protect and defend our families," the council said in welcoming the move by the US treasury department.


    Chiefs or representatives of 61 tribes from across the North African country called for an end to Gaddafi's four-decade rule, in a joint statement released on Wednesday by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy.

    "The Libya of tomorrow, once the dictator has gone, will be a united Libya, with Tripoli as its capital and where we will at last be free to build a civil society according to our own wishes," it said.

    Levy has become an unofficial spokesman in Paris for the revolt and is credited with pressing Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, to mobilise international political and military support for it.

    "Each of the tribes in Libya is represented by at least a representative. In this list of 61 signatures, some tribes are represented 100 per cent, others are still divided," he said.

    'Serious rights abuses'

    On Tuesday, Gaddafi's troops fired volleys of Grad rockets at the port of Misurata, killing one African refugee and wounding at least a dozen others, six of them seriously.

    UN has launched an inquiry into the violence since Gaddafi forces began a crackdown against protesters [AFP]

    But after securing the port, Misurata's rebels were bolstered by the arrival of a ship carrying humanitarian supplies including food and medicines, as well as at least one boat loaded with arms, an AFP correspondent reported.

    Further west, Gaddafi forces were massed in force in an apparent bid to recapture the Dehiba border post with Tunisia, a Western military source said on Wednesday.

    Witnesses said the area was rocked by artillery and mortar fire.

    "There is a lot of fire in the area at the foot of the mountains," said a taxi driver at the border, 200km south of Ras Jdir, the main crossing point into Tunisia that the rebels seized on Thursday.

    Government forces closed on rebel outposts on Thursday, showering the western mountain city of Zintan with missiles and attacking rebels holed up near the Tunisian border, according to rebel sources.

    A rebel spokesperson said Zintan had come under fire from Grad missiles, Russian-made multiple-launch battlefield rockets hazardous to civilian areas because of their inaccuracy.

    "Today alone, 80 missiles hit the town. We knew they are Grad missiles by the sound they make and we checked what remained of them," the spokesperson, identifying himself as Abdulrahman, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

    "The rebels are preventing the army reaching the city. That is why Gaddafi forces are using missiles to subjugate the town".

    Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi denies his forces are attacking civilians and describes his opponents as Islamist extremists and foreign-backed agitators who deliberately put non-combatants in harm's way.

    Overnight, the United Nations said a three-member international panel would begin a UN-ordered inquiry into the violence and abuses since Gaddafi forces began a crackdown against protesters in mid-February.

    The inquiry was "ordered after reports emerged of serious human rights abuses against civilians in Libya, where initially peaceful protests have transformed into open conflict between opposition groups and the Gaddafi regime," it said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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