- Libya - Muammar Gaddafi
Humanitarian crisis in Misrata worsens as fighting rages
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces have retreated to the outskirts of the strategic port city of Misrata but are still engaged in heavy fighting, a rebel fighter said Tuesday, as the city's humanitarian situation rapidly worsens.
REUTERS - Troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi extended their campaign to pound Berber towns in Libya’s Western Mountains and battled rebels around the port of the besieged western city of Misrata.
Tripoli was quiet on Tuesday after a NATO strike on Gaddafi’s compound in the capital which Libyan officials said was an attempt to kill the leader who is fighting an uprising against his 41-year rule of this oil producing desert state.
More than a month of Western air strikes have yet to tip the balance decisively in a conflict that has been described as a stalemate. The intervention in Libya is the biggest in an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata said on Tuesday that pro-Gaddafi forces had withdrawn to the outskirts of the city, which is gripped by a humanitarian crisis, but that fighting was raging.
“Gaddafi’s troops are still positioned on the outskirts of the city,” the spokesman, called Reda, told Reuters in a brief telephone conversation before the line was cut.
“There is fighting now in the southern area. The revolutionaries (rebels) are trying to advance ... The city centre is stable this morning.”
As Libya has descended into civil war, counter-attacks by government forces have underlined Gaddafi will not go the same way as fellow leaders in Egypt and Tunisia did in the tide of popular unrest that has rolled across the Arab world.
The Libyan leader has vowed to fight to the death.
The conflict has split the oil producer, Africa’s fourth biggest, into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ragged but dedicated rebel forces.
Referring to NATO air strikes, Libyan television said late on Monday the “crusader aggressors” bombed civilian and military sites in Bir al Ghanam, 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli, and the Ayn Zara area of the capital, causing casualties.
The report said foreign ships had attacked and severed the al-Alyaf cable off Libya’s coast, cutting communications to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte as well as the key oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega.
The United States, the United Nations and European Union imposed sanctions on the Libyan government and selected Libyan companies in late February and in March.
But Libya has imported gasoline from Italian refiner Saras in April, taking advantage of a loophole in U.N. sanctions that permits purchases by companies not on a U.N. list of banned entities, according to shipping sources.
Libyan efforts to import fuel may be raised at a meeting in Washington on Tuesday when British Defence Secretary Liam Fox meets his U.S. counterpart, Robert Gates.
People in Misrata emerged from homes after daybreak on Monday to scenes of devastation after Gaddafi’s forces pulled back from the city under cover of blistering rocket and tank fire, said witnesses contacted by telephone.
Nearly 60 people had been killed in clashes in the city in the last three days, residents told Reuters.
Rebel celebrations premature
Although rebels’ celebrations of “victory” in Misrata at the weekend turned out to be premature, it was clear they had inflicted significant losses on government forces there.
“Bodies of Gaddafi’s troops are everywhere in the streets and in the buildings. We can’t tell how many. Some have been there for days,” said rebel Ibrahim.
Rebel spokesman Abdelsalam, speaking late on Monday, said Gaddafi forces were trying to re-enter the Nakl Thaqeel Road, which leads to Misrata’s port, its lifeline to the outside.
Another rebel spokesman, Sami, said the humanitarian situation was worsening rapidly. “It is indescribable. The hospital is very small. It is full of wounded people, most of them are in critical condition,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Mark Bartolini, director of foreign disaster assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said aid organisations were aiming to create stocks of food in the region in case Libyan supply chains began breaking down.
Among the places in particular need of food aid were isolated towns in the Western Mountains, from where tens of thousands of people have fled to Tunisia from the fighting.
“Our town is under constant bombardment by Gaddafi’s troops. They are using all means. Everyone is fleeing,” said one refugee, Imad, bringing his family out of the mountains.
While the world’s attention has been on the bloody siege of the western rebel stronghold of Misrata and battles further east, fighting has intensified in the Western Mountains.
Flanked by deserts, the mountain range stretches west for over 150 km (90 miles) from south of Tripoli to Tunisia, and is inhabited by Berbers who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans and long viewed with suspicion by the government.
Western Mountains towns joined the wider revolt against Gaddafi’s rule in February. They fear they are now paying the price while NATO efforts to whittle down Gaddafi’s forces from the air are concentrated on bigger population centres.
The African Union held separate talks on Monday with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi and rebel representatives in Addis Ababa to discuss a ceasefire plan.
The rebels had earlier rebuffed an AU plan because it did not entail Gaddafi’s departure, while the United States, Britain and France say there can be no political solution until the Libyan leader leaves power.