TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi shelled a building in Misrata early on Sunday to try to dislodge rebels from their last big stronghold in western Libya where a doctor says hundreds have been killed.
Like many cities, Misrata rejected Gaddafi’s rule in a revolt in February. In a violent crackdown, Gaddafi’s forces restored control in most places in western Libya, leaving Misrata cut off and surrounded, with dwindling supplies.
In the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east, the anti-Gaddafi council have named a “crisis team,” including the former Libyan interior minister as the armed forces chief of staff, to try to run parts of the country it holds.
The rebel leadership has also called for the NATO-led air assault against Gaddafi forces to continue despite 13 rebel fighters being killed in a strike as they tried to take control of the eastern oil town of Brega.
The shelling in Misrata hit a building that was previously being used to treat the wounded from the fighting in Libya’s third largest city and killed at least one person and wounded several more, a resident said.
“We have one confirmed dead and we don’t know how many wounded. The ambulances are arriving now, bringing the wounded,” said the resident, speaking by telephone from a building now being used as the makeshift hospital.
After weeks of shelling and encirclement, government forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels’ hold there, despite Western air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets. The rebels say they still control the city center and the sea port, but Gaddafi’s forces have pushed into the center along the main thoroughfare.
A doctor who gave his name as Ramadan told Reuters by telephone from the city that 160 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in fighting in Misrata over the past seven days.
Ramadan, a British-based doctor who said he arrived in Misrata three days ago on a humanitarian mission, had no figure for the total toll since fighting began six weeks ago.
“But every week between 100 or 140 people are reported killed — multiply this by six and our estimates are 600 to 1,000 deaths since the fighting started,” he said.
One Benghazi-based rebel said food supplies were acutely low in Misrata. “There are severe food shortages and we call on humanitarian organizations to help,” said the rebel called Sami, who said he was in regular contact with a Misrata resident.
Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from the city, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
FRESHLY DUG GRAVES
Rebels said on Saturday they had also lost men in a NATO-led air strike.
The 13 fighters died on Friday night in an increasingly chaotic battle over Brega with Gaddafi’s troops, who have reversed a rebel advance on the coastal road linking their eastern stronghold with western Libya.
Hundreds of mostly young, inexperienced volunteers were seen fleeing east from Brega toward the town of Ajdabiyah after coming under heavy mortar and machinegun fire.
A contingent of more experienced and better organized rebel units initially held their ground in Brega, but with most journalists forced east, it was unclear whether they had remained inside the town or had pulled back into the desert.
A Reuters correspondent visiting the scene of the air strike saw at least four burned-out vehicles, including an ambulance, by the side of the road near the eastern entrance to the town.
Men prayed at freshly dug graves covered by the rebel red, black and green flag nearby.
Most blamed a Tripoli agent for drawing the “friendly fire.”
But some gave a different account. “The rebels shot up in the air and the alliance came and bombed them. We are the ones who made the mistake,” said a fighter who did not give his name.
A rebel spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters the leadership still wanted and needed allied air strikes. “You have to look at the big picture. Mistakes will happen. We are trying to get rid of Gaddafi and there will be casualties, although of course it does not make us happy.”
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for NATO, which this week assumed command of the military operation launched on March 19, declined to say whether its forces were involved in the Brega incident.
“We are looking into the report,” said spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “However, if someone fires at our aircraft, they have the right to protect themselves.”
NATO has conducted 363 sorties since taking over command of the Libya operations on March 31, and about 150 were intended as strike missions, but NATO has not confirmed hitting any targets.
Brega is one of a string of oil towns along the coast that have been taken and retaken by each side after the U.N. mandated intervention intended to protect civilians.
The volunteers have frequently fled under fire, raising questions about whether the rebels can make any headway against Gaddafi’s better-equipped and better-trained forces without greater Western military involvement.
In Benghazi, the rebel council named its “crisis team” on Saturday to administer parts of the country it controls.
Omar Hariri is in charge of the military department, with General Abdel Fattah Younes al Abidi, a long serving officer in Gaddafi’s armed forces, as his chief of staff.
Younes, a former Libyan interior minister, changed sides at the start of the uprising in mid-February but is distrusted by many in the rebel camp because of his past ties to Gaddafi.