Libyan rebels claim seizing Misurata airport

Opposition fighters in besieged western city continue advance after breaking through government lines two days ago.

    Libyan rebels said they had made gains by driving back Gaddafi's troops [AFP]

    Libyan rebels in the besieged western city of Misurata captured the city's airport on Wednesday, marking another advance against forces loyal to long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi days after opposition fighters broke through their lines to the west.

    "This is a major victory," rebel fighter Abdel Salam told the AP news agency. He said five rebels had been killed and 105 injured in the fighting.

    Rebel sources told Al Jazeera that they had also taken the military airbase, which is part of the same facility, though other reports described pockets of ongoing fighting in the area.

    Misurata is Libya's third-largest city and the most significant opposition stronghold in the west of the country, where the uprising against Gaddafi has been weaker.

    The city has been surrounded for weeks and split roughly along an east-west road. Throughout the fighting, Gaddafi's forces have controlled the area south of the road, including the airport, which lies around five kilometres from the city centre and Tripoli Street, a main avenue that was the scene of vicious fighting for weeks.

    Rebels have fought Gaddafi loyalists street by street for weeks, and the taking of the airport represents a significant territorial gain. The advance comes two days after rebels broke through the government's lines west of Misurata, reportedly pushing as far as Qaryat az Zurayq, around 20km away.

    In the east, rebels have recently advanced on Brega, a key oil town that government troops have held since early April. Rather than attempt to take the town during their assault on Tuesday, rebel forces reportedly withdrew to allow NATO planes to strike any government vehicles that participated in a counterattack.

    Ceasefire call

    As opposition forces appeared to make gains in both the west and east, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, called on Wednesday for an "immediate, verifiable ceasefire'' and urged government forces to stop attacking civilians.

    Ban said humanitarian workers trying to deliver aid to those affected by the fighting must be allowed unimpeded access.

    "First and foremost, there should be an end to the fighting in Misurata and elsewhere," Ban said. "Then we will be able to provide humanitarian assistance and in parallel we can continue our political dialogue."

    Ban's comments followed a similar call from Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, for a pause in hostilities to allow food, water, medical supplies and other aid to be delivered to needy populations.

    NATO attacks

    Four explosions in quick succession rocked the capital Tripoli early on Thursday as NATO jets were heard flying overhead.

    The blasts, which came from the direction of the Bab al-Aziziya area where Gaddafi's compound is located, shook the windows of a hotel where journalists are staying in the capital.

    Two plumes of white smoke could be seen rising above the city following the blasts, as emergency vehicle sirens wailed and sporadic gunfire rang out.

    The strikes came just a few hours after Libyan state TV late on Wednesday showed footage it said was of Gaddafi meeting with tribal leaders, the first new video of him aired since an April 30 air strike that the regime termed an attempt on his life.

    State TV said the footage was of a meeting between Gaddafi and tribal dignitaries from the east of Libya, an area held by rebels seeking his ouster.

    A Libyan official told AFP the video was shot around 7:30 pm (1730 GMT) on Wednesday.

    Growing EU support

    Meanwhile Britain said that the head of Libya's rebel council will visit the country on Thursday and meet Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the possibility of setting up a London office.

    Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil will also meet Foreign Secretary William Hague and finance minister George Osborne to examine measures agreed at last week's Contact Group meeting in Rome, the Foreign Office said in a statement.

    It will be the first time that Jalil has met the British leader for face-to-face talks.

    Also on Wednesday EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced plans to open an office in Benghazi to facilitate assistance to the rebel council based there.

    "I intend to open an office in Benghazi so that we can move forward on the support we've discussed to the people... to support civil society, to support the Interim Transitional National Council," Ashton told the European Parliament.

    She said EU support would include help for security sector reform and institution-building.

    "We want to help with education, with health care, with security on the borders," she said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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