Libyan tribes try to negotiate Misurata rebel exit

If negotiations fail, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said tribal chiefs may send armed supporters into the city of 300,000 to fight the rebels. In the meantime, the Libyan military is halting operations in Misurata, Kaim said. However, the Misurata area is not known to have very large or dominant tribes, and rebels in the city questioned how much support Gaddafi had among them. It was also unclear whether the rebels are willing to negotiate, with Kaim saying tribal chiefs are still trying to get in touch with them.

Rebel officials have confirmed that Gaddafi's forces have pulled back, but have expressed doubts that the regime will fully withdraw from the city. Misurata, the only major rebel stronghold in Gaddafi-controlled western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted longtime leaders. Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with NATO airstrikes that began last month.

Hundreds of people have been killed in two months of a government siege backed by tanks, mortars and snipers firing from rooftops. Late last week, rebels drove snipers from a tall downtown building, in a setback for Gaddafi loyalists who had controlled the city center. The rebels have defended positions around Misurata's seaport.

Kaim said the army has halted operations in Misurata since Friday, as part of the attempt of tribal leaders to negotiate an exit deal for the rebels. However, residents reported heavy fighting, shelling and explosions in the east and south of Misurata and doctors said yesterday was one of the bloodiest days in weeks.

At least 24 people were killed and 75 were wounded, many of them critically, said a doctor at a Misurata hospital who asked to be identified only by his first name because he was afraid of government retribution. He said that hospital officials who feared a strong attack yesterday had moved out some patients a day earlier to make way for more casualties.

Kaim said the tribal chiefs are determined to put an end to the fighting, in part because it has blocked access to the Misurata seaport. "The leaders of the tribes are determined to find a solution to this problem within 48 hours," he said. If negotiations fail, "the other option, which is still available for the leaders and the heads of the tribes is a military intervention to liberate Misurata," he said.

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