Libya rebels say government shells port city

TRIPOLI Sat May 21, 2011 5:37pm EDT

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan government forces shelled residential areas on Saturday outside Misrata, a port city held by rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, a rebel website said.

The shelling damaged houses in the eastern and western outskirts of the city but no one was hurt, said the Brnieq opposition newspaper on its website. There was no independent confirmation of the attack.

Three months into an uprising against Gaddafi's four-decade rule, rebels control the oil-producing east of the country and pockets in the west including Misrata, where hundreds have died in a siege and weeks of fierce fighting.

NATO says its bombing campaign against Libyan government forces helped rebels consolidate their positions in Misrata, the only western city in rebel hands.

The campaign has crippled Tripoli's ability to attack rebels and effectively forced Gaddafi into hiding, NATO said on Friday. Overall the conflict is deadlocked as rebel attempts to advance on Tripoli have stalled.

The alliance took command of a U.N.-authorised mission nearly two months ago to stop Gaddafi's forces attacking civilians, and Western governments including the United States, Britain and France are under pressure to show results.

NATO said it conducted 157 air sorties on Friday. Its targets included a command-and-control node and an armoured vehicle storage depot near Tripoli and three surface-to-air missile launchers around Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown.

Tripoli calls the rebels criminals and al Qaeda militants and says NATO's bombing is armed aggression by Western nations bent on grabbing Libya's oil.

SNIPERS, MERCENARIES

Libyans armed with guns and a knife stormed a bus carrying foreign journalists on Saturday and a soldier fired volleys of gunfire into the air to disperse the crowd, said a Reuters journalist on the bus.

No one was hurt in the attack but it reflected anger in government-controlled territory over severe petrol shortages, NATO air strikes and government and state media reports that foreign journalists misrepresent the news.

In a sign of international discord over the campaign, Russia stepped up its criticism of NATO. A foreign ministry statement accused NATO of killing civilians and destroying infrastructure.

Rebels and government forces on Friday battled in an area called Ryna around 10 km (6 miles) east of Zintan, a town in the contested Western Mountains region.

A Reuters reporter in Zintan heard artillery rounds and anti-aircraft gunfire on Friday and a rebel spokesman in the town, Juma Ibrahim, said it appeared pro-government forces were trying to advance and were firing tank rounds and heavy guns.

Pro-Gaddafi forces surrounded the eastern section of Ryna, positioned snipers on roofs, kidnapped young men and looted stores, Jemaa Ibrahim, a rebel in Zintan, told Reuters by telephone on Saturday.

The soldiers, who included African mercenaries, asked residents to leave their homes and many fled under duress, some coming to Zintan, he said. There was no independent confirmation of his report.

(Additional reporting by Guy Desmond in Zawiyah, Matt Robinson in Zintan, Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Matthew Bigg, Editing by Philippa Fletcher)