Fighting rages in Misurata despite army 'halt to operations'

Fighting rages in Misurata despite army 'halt to operations'

Fierce fighting raged in the western besieged town of Misurata even as the Libyan regime today said it had suspended operations against rebels in a bid to allow the local tribes to resolve the deepening conflict.

Khaled Kaim, the Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister, said the army had put off operations against the rebels, but not withdrawn from Misurata so that local tribes could help find a solution.

"The armed forces have not withdrawn from Misurata. They have simply suspended their operations," Kaim told reporters in the capital capital. However, he warned that if the rebels refused to surrender in the next two days, armed tribesmen will fight them in place of the army.

"The other option which is still available from the heads of the tribes is the military intervention to liberate Misurata," he said. Amid conflicting reports over the halt to operations, BBC said explosions and gunfire were heard from Misurata, Libya's third largest city.

Local residents and doctors described yesterday as one of the bloodiest in weeks, leaving at least 25 people killed and at least 71 others critically injured in the rebels' main stronghold in the west of the country.

Mohammed El Fortia, a doctor in the city was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera that many of those who died yesterday were victims of booby-trapped bombs left by the Libyan army.
Human rights groups have expressed fears that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting there amid looming humanitarian crisis in the port city, 215 east of the capital Tripoli.

Kaim had earlier announced that forces loyal to Gaddafi will withdraw from the third largest city so that the situation "will be dealt with by the tribes".

"We will leave the tribes around Misurata and Misurata's people to deal with the situation, either using force or negotiations," he said on Friday night. However, the rebels, seeking to see the end of the 41-year rule of 68-year-old Gaddafi, were sceptical about the claim. They accused the Libyan regime of "playing games".

"Gaddafi forces are moving back," Safi Eddin al-Montaser, a rebel spokesman in Misurata was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera. Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman for the opposition's Transitional National Council (TNC) in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, also doubted the regime would fully withdraw from Misurata.

Intensifying its air attacks on Gaddafi's forces, NATO fired its first Predator drone strike yesterday, destroying a Libyan government multiple rocket launcher near Misurata.

The NATO strike came as a big boost to rebels who were coming under fierce attack Gaddafi's forces which were forcing them to retreat with heavy shelling and firing, using human shields.

The western military alliance stepped up its air strikes on targets around Tripoli and other cities, BBC quoted Libyan state news agency Jana as saying. At least three large explosions were heard in Tripoli.

In eastern war zone, NATO pounded the Libyan army on the frontline of Ajdabiya and the strategic oil town of Brega, which has been the scene of seesaw battle between forces loyal to Gaddafi and the opposition fighters.

NATO stepped into the Libyan fighting in mid-March, unleashing airstrikes against military targets as part of a UN mandate to protect civilians. It has undertaken over 3,000 sorties since assuming control of the UN-backed mission late last month.

"We have struck a broad range of targets across the country - tanks and rocket launchers, armoured vehicles and ammunition stores, command and control sites," it said in statement.

France, Italy and Britain have agreed to send military officers to Libya to train the ragtag rebel forces seeking to end Gaddafi's rule. The European military officers will help advise rebels on technical, logistical and organisational issues.

The decision to strengthen the rebel forces to take on the Libyan regime comes as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, warned that the conflict was "moving towards stalemate".

He has admitted that while the NATO air strikes had weakened the Libyan forces, the conflict was moving into "stalemate". Mullen, speaking to US troops in Iraq on Friday, said the fighting in Libya is "moving towards stalemate", even though US and Nato air strikes have destroyed 30-40 person of Gaddaf's ground forces.

Even as backing the three European countries to dispatch military advisers to help the rebels, the US has made it clear it will not be sending any military personnel to the war-torn North African state.

The US repeatedly underlined that the deployment of armed UAVs was not a prelude to a deeper American commitment involving more strike aircraft or ground troops. Amid the fighting, human rights groups have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Misurata. There is severe shortages of food and medical supplies and thousands of foreign migrant workers remained stranded.

An aid vessel carrying more than 500 evacuees, most of them foreign workers, arrived today in Benghazi. The migrants were stranded in makeshift camps near Misurata's port, some of them for weeks, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross was quoted as saying in the media.

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