TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libyan government forces bombarded the port of rebel-held Misrata with rockets and shellfire on Monday, disrupting operations to bring supplies in by sea to the besieged city.
A rebel spokesman complained that NATO forces, charged with protecting civilians caught up in the uprising against Gaddafi’s rule, had failed to act in defense of Misrata.
“The port is under heavy shelling today too, they have fired around 100 rockets so far. The shelling on Misrata has not stopped in the past 36 hours,” the spokesman, who identified himself as Hassan al-Misrati, told Reuters by telephone.
“It seems that NATO have forgotten about us and this has emboldened the Gaddafi forces.”
The renewed bombardments followed a NATO air strike on a Gaddafi compound in Tripoli on Saturday night which killed his son Saif al-Arab and three young grandchildren, triggering attacks by angry crowds on the British and French embassies and the U.S. diplomatic mission.
Funerals were expected to be held on Monday, an occasion that might bring an appearance by Gaddafi, who authorities say was in the Tripoli house when it was destroyed by at least three missiles.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim denied allegations in some media that the deaths had been fabricated to discredit NATO. The alliance said it hit a command and control center.
Any appearance of an assassination attempt against Gaddafi is likely to lead to accusations the British and French-led strikes are exceeding the U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
French surgeon Gerrard Le Clouerec, who does not work for the Libyan government, was asked to independently identify the bodies of Saif al-Arab, 29, and two children. He said all three had died due to a blast but the children’s faces had been obliterated so they were difficult to identify.
Le Clouerec said he also saw the body of a young man of about 30, with a beard and a thin mustache whose face matched a photograph he had been shown of Saif al-Arab.
There was no immediate reaction from Libyan officials to news that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces in a raid in Pakistan, an event that may rattle Gaddafi as he faces strong international condemnation over the tactics he is using to suppress the uprising.
MISRATA UNDER FIRE
Misrata, which has become a bloody symbol of resistance to him, was subjected to renewed bombardments on Monday.
“Shelling the port is disastrous for us because it will sabotage all the humanitarian aid we are getting,” rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan said. “God help us if this happens.”
Rocket barrages had hit the port area on Sunday as an aid ship was trying to unload and forced two other vessels to wait offshore.
Libyan state television said the port was shelled to stop NATO from delivering weapons to the insurgents. The rebel spokesman said that allegation was a lie.
Rights groups say hundreds of people, including many civilians, have been killed in Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Officials in Tripoli deny targeting civilians, and say they are fighting armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathizers.
Rebels have repelled government troops from the center of Libya’s third largest city in recent days and now say they have gone on the offensive to try to capture Misrata airport.
The frontline in eastern Libya has been static west of the town of Ajdabiyah for a week with government troops digging in and rebels attempting to train and regroup.
In the west, Libyan government forces are fighting to dislodge rebels from the Western Mountains after they seized control last month of the Dehiba-Wazin crossing, opening a passage for food, fuel and medicine.
The sound of heavy bombardment and small arms fire echoed through the mountains on the Libyan side of the border.
Artillery shells fell on and around the town of Dehiba on the Tunisian side of the border, residents told Reuters, the site of an incursion on Friday by forces loyal to Gaddafi that provoked fury in Libya’s western neighbor.
Refugees poured across the border into Tunisia on Sunday.
“I never thought I would have to leave my house but today, at the age of 80, I find myself forced to flee with my family, without taking any possessions and without knowing where I’m going to stay here in Tunisia,” said a Libyan man who fled the rebel-held town of Zintan.
U.N. WITHDRAWS STAFF
Britain expelled the Libyan ambassador and Italy condemned the attack on its embassy as a grave and vile act.
Most Western countries closed their embassies in Tripoli before the NATO military intervention began several weeks ago.
Deputy Foreign Minister Kaim called the attacks on the embassies “a regrettable action” but said police were outnumbered by the demonstrators.”
The United Nations withdrew its international staff from Tripoli after a crowd entered their compound.
“A crowd of people entered a U.N. compound and some vehicles were taken. All U.N. staff are safe and accounted for,” Martin Nesirky, a U.N. spokesman, said. “The decision to leave the country was based on the overall security situation in Tripoli.”
The U.N. sent international staff to Tripoli only last month after it reached an agreement with the Libyan government on a humanitarian presence.