Libyan forces are stepping up attempts to seize rebel-held Misrata as rebels warn the city may be facing critical shortages of food and water. Several oil depots were set ablaze in a weekend bomb raid, prompting fears of fuel shortages.
AFP - Libyan regime forces laying siege to Misrata are intensifying their assault on the lifeline port, as rebels warned they were running low on critical food and fuel supplies.
Two loud explosions were also heard Sunday in Tripoli, where the regime of embattled Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi has its headquarters, as jets flew overhead, witnesses said.
Italian coast guards and local fisherman, meanwhile, saved all 528 refugees on a boat from Libya after their vessel hit rocks off the island of Lampedusa in an operation a rescuer described as a "miracle." Among the refugees who had thrown themselves into the water at night were 24 pregnant women.
Map of Libya
But the survivors said they saw another boat laden with fellow refugees capsize just off Libyan shores and "many bodies" were in the water, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
"It was terrible. There were a lot of corpses," said a refugee, whose name was not quoted in the report, which said "dozens of dozens" of people had likely died.
In Misrata, fighting broke out in the resort area of Burgueya, west of the make-or-break city in the Libyan conflict lying about 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the capital.
A thick plume of smoke spread over Misrata, the main source of supplies to rebels fighting to oust the veteran strongman in western Libya, from blazing fuel depots bombed a day earlier. Long queues formed at fuel stations amid fears of shortages.
Forces loyal to Kadhafi "destroyed the only tanks that were full," said Ahmad Monthasser, a rebel from Misrata.
Rebels warned that residents of Misrata could run out of food and water within a month if they are not provided with "game-changing" weapons to defeat Kadhafi's forces.
Because of shelling of the city's port over the past two weeks, only one aid ship a week is now reaching Misrata, which is circled by the Libyan strongman's troops, said a spokesman in the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi.
Misrata is seen as key to the Libyan conflict, which broke out in mid-February after Kadhafi's security forces waged a bloody crackdown on protests inspired by regime-changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
Rebels have been fearing for days that Kadhafi's forces will mount a new ground assault on the city.
In Images: Misrata refugees arrive in Benghazi
International aid agencies have stepped up efforts to evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Misrata to the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi. Around 630 refugees arrived in Benghazi on Wednesday aboard a Red Cross-commissioned boat. ©FRANCE 24
International aid groups are now relying on Misrata's northern sea-face to ship in humanitarian aid and evacuate stranded civilians. ©FRANCE 24
As the Red Cross boat was leaving Misrata on Tuesday afternoon forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi hit the city's port with heavy shelling. ©FRANCE 24
"Rockets were landing right next to the ship and as the ship started to leave, I could hear boom, boom, boom,” said Wagji Zakijundi, an Egyptian schoolteacher in Misrata and now refugee in Benghazi. ©FRANCE 24
Javier Cepero, a spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross, confirmed that there had been shelling in and around the port. "I can't say if [the refugees] were specifically targeted," he added. ©FRANCE 24
More than half-a-million people, most of them third-country nationals, have fled Libya since the uprising began in February, according to USAID (US Agency for International Development) officials. ©FRANCE 24
International aid agencies have launched evacuation missions to help the foreign workers return home and ease the strain on neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. ©FRANCE 24
At least nine rebels were killed and 50 wounded in fierce clashes in the northwestern mountain town of Zintan as Kadhafi forces pressed the insurgents on several fronts.
A barrage of shells also struck Wazin, a western mountain town near the border with Tunisia, forcing thousands to flee, while loyalist fighters also attacked the southern oasis towns of Ojla and Jalo, which neighbour oil facilities.
The day before, Kadhafi's forces dropped mines into Misrata's harbour using small helicopters bearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the rebels said.
Amnesty International's senior adviser Donatella Rovera lashed out at the Kadhafi regime, saying the mines do not "distinguish between civilian and military vehicles."
"Such systematic targeting of Misrata's only conduit for humanitarian supplies and for the evacuation of critically ill and wounded patients is nothing short of collective punishment against the city's population," she said.
Given the "wind of change" sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the growing pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the head of NATO said he was "very optimistic" that Kadhafi would ultimately lose his decades-old grip on power.
"The game is over for Kadhafi. He should realize sooner rather than later that there's no future for him or his regime," NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told CNN's "State of the Union" program.
But he also acknowledged the brutal war that has raged for nearly two months would be resolved politically, not militarily.
World powers have promised $250 million (175 million euros) in humanitarian aid to the rebels and said the Kadhafi regime's frozen overseas assets, estimated at $60 billion, would be used later to assist the Libyan opposition.
The economic situation in rebel-held areas, including Benghazi, is steadily worsening, with costs of basic commodities skyrocketing and the rebel administration facing shortage of funds as receipts from oil exports have come to a virtual halt.
An international coalition began carrying out strikes on Kadhafi forces on March 19, under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians in the country. NATO took command of operations over Libya on March 31.
Sunday's explosions came a week after the regime said Seif al-Arab Kadhafi, one of Kadhafi's sons, and three of his grandchildren were killed in a NATO air strike on a compound in Tripoli.
In neighbouring Egypt, the foreign ministry said Cairo has imposed visa restrictions on Libyans, in a move that will restrict the numbers trying to escape the conflict.
Date created : 2011-05-09