TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya’s army fired volleys of rockets at the rebel-held town of Zintan in the Western Mountains, pressing on with a campaign that has created a humanitarian crisis and forced thousands to flee the country.
Rebels said more than 40 Grad rockets hit Zintan late on Tuesday, and aid to the western port of Misrata was hindered by artillery fire and mines near the harbor entrance. The city has become one of the bloodiest battlefields in the two-month war.
Rebel spokesmen said fighting had flared again in Misrata’s eastern suburbs, but that intense air strikes by NATO planes appeared to have won the port, the city’s lifeline, a respite in shelling by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
In Tripoli, witnesses heard two loud explosions late on Tuesday but there was no explanation of their cause.
Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, has not been seen in public since a NATO missile attack on Saturday on a house in Tripoli, which killed his youngest son and three grandchildren. Officials in Tripoli said he was in good health.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Gaddafi is alive, CIA Director Leon Panetta said. “(The) best intelligence we have is that he’s still alive,” Panetta told NBC News.
Vowing to fight to the death, Gaddafi has not followed the examples of fellow leaders in Egypt and Tunisia who stepped down as a tide of popular unrest rolled across the Arab world.
The civil war has split the oil-producing desert state, Africa’s fourth biggest, into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ragged but dedicated rebel forces.
A senior commander of NATO’s Libya mission on Tuesday rejected suggestions from military analysts that the war was in a stalemate and said the alliance was achieving its goals.
“I personally don’t think there is a real stalemate — let’s say we are going slowly but steadily,” he said by video conference from the NATO mission headquarters in Naples.
Western countries that launched the Libya campaign in March had hoped for a swift overthrow of Gaddafi, but his better-trained and equipped militias have halted rebel advances despite a supporting bombing campaign now led by NATO.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in his strongest public comments yet on Libya, said “Gaddafi should step down right away and leave the administration to Libyan people.”
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said an exodus from the Western Mountains region had resumed, with Libyan families fleeing into southern Tunisia.
“This past weekend, more than 8,000 people, most of them ethnic Berbers, arrived in Dehiba in southern Tunisia. Most are women and children,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva. Tens of thousands have already fled.
The Dehiba crossing point has changed hands several times in the last week, with fighting spilling over onto Tunisian soil.
A violent sandstorm that battered the area had made the situation more difficult. “The storm has destroyed hundreds of tents and two huge portable warehouses,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, more people have been fleeing Libya by sea to Italy, after a 10-day break due to bad weather.
While a few rebel pockets such as Zintan and Misrata resist Gaddafi’s forces in western Libya, in the largely rebel-held east the most pressing need is for cash to try to restore infrastructure and establish a viable administration.
Rebels said they expected billions of dollars in credit soon from Western governments to feed and supply their territories in the east and support their campaign against Gaddafi.
Ali Tarhouni, head of the rebel national council’s finance committee, said he expected France, Italy and the United States to extend credit secured against frozen Libyan state assets.
With Libya’s economy in tatters after more than two months of civil war, funds to pay for food, medicine and the state salaries on which most people depend are running low.
“We are still discovering different segments that need to be paid that we thought were paid,” Tarhouni told reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya’s second city.
“At every single moment another need arises in terms of food, medicine and people who are injured,” he said. “I need about $2-3 billion and we are hoping to get most or all this.”
CASH AND SANCTIONS
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the countries in the Libya “contact group” would discuss establishing a temporary financial mechanism at talks in Rome on Thursday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament there were “opportunities for tightening sanctions over things like oil and oil products to make sure this regime … realizes it cannot go on terrorizing its own people.”
President Nicolas Sarkozy said France planned to organize a conference of “friends” of Libya, including defectors and various political groups, to try to find a political solution.
The insurgents had hoped for a swift overthrow of Gaddafi but his better-trained and better-equipped forces halted the westward rebel advance from their stronghold of Benghazi and forced a stalemate in the fighting.
The International Organisation for Migration said an aid ship was still waiting off Misrata for mines to be cleared before it delivered supplies and evacuated foreigners and wounded Libyans. NATO said its minesweepers had destroyed two mines laid by government forces and were searching for a third.
The revolt in Libya is the bloodiest yet against long-entrenched rulers common across the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring has seen the overthrow of the veteran presidents of Tunisia and Egypt — Libya’s western and eastern neighbors.