Rebels in the besieged Libyan port city Misrata claim they have pushed Gaddafi loyalist troops out of the city, after the Libyan leader’s compound took direct hits in a NATO air strike.
Several rebel sources have said Moammar Gaddafi’s regime forces have been ejected from Misrata, 215km east of Tripoli, but rockets continue to rain down on the country’s third city.
“Clashes took place on the western outskirts, but the rest has been cleaned up. There may be some soldiers hiding in the city, afraid of being killed, but there are no groups of soldiers left,” one rebel said.
However, the claim was greeted sceptically in Benghazi, bastion of the rebellion that erupted in mid-February against the veteran strongman.
The Transitional National Council’s military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani dismissed reports of progress in Misrata. “It is a disaster there. Gaddafi is not losing,” he said.
“Gaddafi is not going anywhere. Misrata is the key to Tripoli. If he lets go of Misrata, he will let go of Tripoli. He is not crazy enough to do that.”
Col Bani reiterated that the embattled Gaddafi is playing dirty: “He is saying one thing and then doing the opposite,” he said.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam called an overnight NATO raid on the Bab al-Aziziya compound “cowardly”.
“This cowardly attack on Moammar Gaddafi’s office may frighten or terrorise children but we will not abandon the battle and we are not afraid,” he said, claiming that NATO’s battle was “lost in advance”.
Regime spokesman Mussa Ibrahim has said Gaddafi is safe and still in charge. “The leader is working from Tripoli. The leader is well, is very healthy, is leading the battle for peace and democracy in Libya,” Mr Ibrahim said, adding that three people were killed and 45 wounded – 15 seriously – in the air strike.
A meeting room facing Gaddafi’s office was badly damaged by the blast which NATO in Brussels has said targeted a communications centre. “NATO carried out a precision strike in central Tripoli last night,” a statement said. “The target was a Communications Headquarter that was used to coordinate attacks against civilians.”
Misrata, where residents have lived under a rain of shells and sniper fire for 50 days, has been hit by rockets and incessant gunfire, despite a pledge by the Libyan regime to halt the fighting.
Yesterday the streets were mostly deserted, with many residents holed up inside buildings marked with the scars of weeks of battle, blasted by artillery and pockmarked by bullets.
In the Mujamaa Tibi hospital, Mohamed al-Fajieh recounted the results of the night’s fighting, describing unusually severe wounds and corpses reduced to little more than ashes. There were “completely charred corpses, some of them so badly burned that we aren’t sure they are human bodies,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve seen such burns.”
According to figures provided by sources at hospitals across Misrata, around a dozen people were killed and at least 20 wounded in the latest fighting. Sources have said those caught up in the violence were all civilians – men, women and young children.
Rebel leader Taher Bashaga said: “It will take some time, I think, but then it will all go well and Misrata will be free for ever, God willing.”
However two captured pro-Gaddafi soldiers have said loyalist forces are losing their grip in Misrata. “Many soldiers want to surrender but they are afraid of being executed” by the rebels, said Lili Mohammed, a Mauritanian hired by Gaddafi’s regime to fight the insurgents.
Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim has said the army had suspended operations against rebels in Misrata, but not left the city, to enable local tribes to settle the battle “peacefully and not militarily”.
The Gaddafi regime is accusing the United States, which launched its first Predator drone strikes over the weekend, of “new crimes against humanity” for deploying the low-flying, unmanned aircraft. Drone strikes have so far hit a rocket launcher targeting Misrata and an SA-8 surface-to-air missile in Tripoli, according to NATO officials.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Monday Italy is ready to allow its air force to take part in “targeted action” against selected military objectives in Libya. On the diplomatic front, British Defence Minister Liam Fox has travelled to the United States for talks on Libya with his American counterpart Robert Gates. Agencies