Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sniper's View of Misatra

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MISRATAH: Libyan rebel fighters in Misratah appeared on the cusp of a major victory yesterday as they drove fleeing government forces out of the city after nearly two months of fierce battles.

The rebel gains followed a day of some of the fiercest fighting in weeks, in which at least 24 people were killed and more than a 100 wounded, according to hospital officials. The wounded were struck down in a bombardment that pounded the city from dawn to about 3pm local time and in intense street battles between rebel fighters and retreating Gaddafi forces. By mid-afternoon, the guns of those loyal to Muammar Gaddafi had fallen silent.

Dozens of pro-Gaddafi soldiers were reportedly killed or captured. Rebels continued to retake territory from Gaddafi's forces in the second straight day of gains.

The rebel push came as the US said its first Predator drone attack in the country had destroyed a government rocket launcher that had menaced civilians in Misratah. The Pentagon said it was the first attack carried out in Libya by one of the drones, which began flying missions in the country on Thursday.

Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Kaim, denied the army had pulled out of Misratah. He said it had stopped operations there in response to pressure from tribal leaders, who wanted life in the city to return to normal.

"If the rebels don't surrender in the next two days, armed tribesmen will fight them in place of the army," he said, adding that the tribes could muster 60,000 fighters to send into Misratah.

The opposition was sceptical of the claims. "Gaddafi forces are moving back," said rebel spokesman Safi Eddin al-Montaser. But he added: "People are still nervous because we don't know the next step of Gaddafi's forces."

Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebels' leadership council in Benghazi, claimed the rebels were firmly in control of the city.

Misratah, the only major rebel stronghold in western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted long-time leaders. Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with NATO airstrikes that began last month.

Residents reported heavy fighting, shelling and explosions in the east and south of Misratah and doctors said yesterday's fighting was the bloodiest in weeks.

A doctor at a Misratah hospital said that officials who feared a strong attack had moved out some patients on Saturday to make way for more casualties.

Pro-Gaddafi troops in central Misratah -- including snipers who had terrorised residents for days atop an eight-storey building -- were either flushed out or withdrew in the past two days in what the rebels considered a victory.

"They have withdrawn because they suffered heavy casualties in Misratah and couldn't hold on anymore," said Akram Ali Hameda, a 26-year-old fighter. "God willing, it's almost over and our victory in the city will be complete within a couple of days."

Mr Hameda said stepped-up NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi positions outside Misratah had helped rebels land what they hoped would be the decisive blow against Gaddafi's punishing siege of the city.

On Saturday, NATO airstrikes in the Misratah southern suburb of Dufan destroyed a massive convoy of Land-Cruisers carrying soldiers and arms towards the city, Mr Hameda said. On Friday, he said, 30 tanks had been destroyed.

The retreat of pro-Gaddafi forces enabled some people to venture out into the battle-scarred streets and allowed fighters to set up new checkpoints at the entrance to the city.

"The people began breathing freely," one resident said during the day, although he added that rebels were still wary of pro-Gaddafi fighters who may have melted into the population.

There was no sign of celebrations in the streets.

Traffic had returned and there were long lines for bread and petrol, signs of the distress that the prolonged siege has caused in the city.

In eastern Libya, which is largely controlled by the rebels, other NATO strikes smashed more than two dozen sedans and pick-up trucks belonging to government forces about halfway between Ajdabiya and the strategic oil town of Brega.

(AP) TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Rebel fighters drove Moammar Gadhafi's forces to the edge of the besieged western city of Misrata on Sunday, taking control of the main hospital where government troops had been holed up, a resident said.

In the fighting, Gadhafi loyalists fired dozens of rockets at Misrata on Sunday, said the resident, despite claims by the Libyan government that the army has held its fire since Friday. The resident asked to be identified only by his given name, Abdel Salam, for fear of retribution.

At least 28 people have been killed and 85 wounded by fighting in the city Saturday and Sunday, said Dr. Khaled Abu Falgah, head of the Misrata medical committee.

"The last 24 hours have been one of the hardest and saddest days in the last 65 days," he said.

Libyan officials have said in the past two days that the military is pulling back in Misrata, ostensibly to enable tribal chiefs from the area to negotiate with the rebels. Late Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said troops remained in their positions in the city, but claimed they halted all activity.

Misrata, the only major rebel stronghold in Gadhafi-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, snipers either fled or were flushed out of an eight-story downtown building on a main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, in a setback for Gadhafi loyalists who had controlled the city center.

The rebels have defended positions around Misrata's seaport.

On Sunday, rebels took control of Misrata's main hospital, on Tripoli Street, clearing government troops out of their last position in the city center, said Abdel Salam. "Now Gadhafi's troops are on the outskirts of Misrata, using rocket launchers," he said.

A Misrata rebel, 37-year-old Lutfi, said there had been 300-400 Gadhafi fighters in the main hospital and in the surrounding area that were trying to melt into the local population.

"They are trying to run way," Lutfi said of the soldiers, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "They are pretending to be civilians. They are putting on sportswear."

Thousands of people, many of them foreign workers, were stranded in Misrata during the fighting. Since last week, hundreds of migrants, along with wounded Libyans, have been evacuated in aid vessels through the port.

One of those wounded, Misrata resident Osama al-Shahmi, said Gadhafi's forces have been pounding the city with rockets.

"They have no mercy. They are pounding the city hard," said al-Shahmi after being evacuated from Misrata.

"Everyone in Misrata is convinced that the dictator must go," said al-Shahmi, 36, a construction company administrator who was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket. His right leg wrapped in bandages, al-Shahmi flashed a victory sign as he was wheeled on a gurney into a waiting ambulance upon arrival in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

In Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham said NATO airstrikes should target Gadhafi's inner circle and military headquarters, adding that the quickest way to end a military stalemate is "to cut the head of the snake off."

Gadhafi "needs to wake up every day wondering, 'Will this my last?'" Graham, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN's "State of the Union."

NATO said a U.S. Predator drone destroyed a multiple rocket launcher Saturday in the Misrata area that was being used against civilians. The Pentagon said it was the first attack carried out in Libya by one of the drones, which began flying missions in the country last week.

NATO said another armed drone destroyed an SA-8 surface-to-air missile Saturday in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The drone's operators detected a group of civilians playing football near the missile site and waited to launch their attack until the players had dispersed.

"This Predator strike is a perfect example of the complex and fluid situation that NATO air forces are facing every day," said Rear Adm. Russ Harding, the operation's deputy commander.

He urged civilians to "distance themselves from Gadhafi regime forces, installations and equipment whenever possible so we can strike with greater success and with the minimum risk to civilians."

The SA-8 is a Soviet-built anti-aircraft system dating from the late 1970s. It was the first air defense missile vehicle to mount its own targeting radar.

NATO aircraft have so far conducted nearly 3,600 sorties, including 1,500 strike sorties.

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