TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – An aid ship defied deadly shell fire to rescue African and Asian migrant workers from the besieged port of Misrata Wednesday, but was forced to leave behind hundreds of Libyans desperate to flee the fighting.
Aid workers had earlier scrambled to embark the migrants, along with journalists and the wounded, on the ship bound for rebel-held Benghazi as the Misrata port came under bombardment from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
“The bombing has caused so many casualties among Libyans and people of other nationalities waiting for evacuation,” Gemal Salem, a rebel spokesman, told Reuters. “So far we have five killed and ambulances are rushing to the scene.”
The Red Star One, sent by the International Organisation for Migration, picked up 800 people caught up in the civil war who had been waiting for days to escape Misrata’s worsening humanitarian crisis. It had hoped to take 1,000 people.
“Hundreds of Libyan civilians had also tried to board the ship in desperation to get out of Misrata. But with a limited capacity, the ramp of the boat had to be pulled up so that the ship could pull away from the dock in safety,” the IOM said.
The shelling was also hitting Misrata’s Qasr Ahmad district, a mixed residential and industrial area which houses the iron and steel works in a city that has become one of the bloodiest battlefields in the two-month conflict.
Another rebel spokesman, Abdelsalem, said the five killed were African migrant workers. He said fighting was continuing in the southern neighbourhood of al-Ghiran, where rebels say pro-Gaddafi forces have been trying to advance on the city centre, and in Zawiyat al-Mahjoub to the west.
The port is a lifeline for Misrata, where food and medical supplies are low and snipers shoot from rooftops. Other rescue ships are offshore but there was no news of their movements. About 12,000 people have so far been rescued by 12 ships.
Minesweepers from the NATO coalition, whose aircraft have been bombing Libyan government military targets under a United Nations resolution, had been searching the approaches to the harbour since Monday for a drifting Gaddafi forces’ mine.
The United States Wednesday condemned the continued shelling of Misrata and called on Gaddafi’s forces to permit the IOM to resume evacuating wounded people from the port.
The civil war over Gaddafi’s 41-year rule has split the oil-producing desert state into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ill-disciplined but dedicated rebel forces.
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 a standoff in the fighting has prevailed since then.
The United States, Britain and France, leading a NATO air campaign, say they will not stop until Gaddafi is toppled.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he would request three arrest warrants for his investigation into the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators.
“Crimes against humanity have been and continue to be committed in Libya, attacking unarmed civilians including killings and persecutions in many cities across Libya.”
At a U.N. Security Council meeting, Russia criticised the NATO campaign, saying it was using disproportionate force, and South Africa said the international court should also scrutinise the Western alliance for potential war crimes.
NATO officers met Wednesday in Brussels to review their operation’s progress, rejecting assessments of stalemate on the battlefield despite their warplanes’ intervention, as nations prepared for a meeting in Rome Thursday over rebel finances.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the meeting a “reaffirmation of the strong commitment to our operation,” adding that he sensed no fatigue among the allies, while Gaddafi’s forces were weaker than when the NATO campaign began.
Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, has not been seen in public since a NATO missile attack Saturday on a house in Tripoli, which Libyan officials said killed his youngest son and three grandchildren. Officials said he was in good health.
“HE’S STILL ALIVE”
“(The) best intelligence we have is that he (Gaddafi) is still alive,” CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC News.
Libyan state television said Wednesday that NATO forces bombed Al-Hayrah, west of the capital, causing casualties.
“The colonialist, crusader alliance has just bombed Al-Hayrah a short while ago, causing human casualties and damage to infrastructure,” the broadcaster said.
Libya’s army also fired volleys of rockets at the rebel-held town of Zintan in the Western Mountains, pressing on with a campaign that has forced thousands to flee the country. Rebels said more than 40 Grad rockets hit Zintan late Tuesday.
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.
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. Rebels say they expect up to three billion dollars in credit soon from Western governments to feed and supply their territories in the east.
With Libya’s economy in turmoil, funds to pay for food, medicine and the state salaries on which most people depend are running low. Securing financing for rebels and facilitating contacts with defectors will be the focus of Libya talks in Rome Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
Juppe told France 24 television the meeting of the so-called “Contact Group” on Libya, including Western and Middle Eastern countries, the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League, would discuss setting up a financing mechanism.
“It’s not easy. There are Libyan assets that are frozen and for legal reasons unfreezing them is difficult,” Juppe said.
Juppe said another aim of the Rome meeting would be to build contacts with defectors from Gaddafi’s government and officials who want to leave it. “There are a lot of officials from Tripoli who want to talk. We are going to try to coordinate,” he said.
The revolt in Libya is the bloodiest yet against long-entrenched rulers 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.