Facing setbacks, Libyan city sees enemies all around

MISRATA, Libya Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:13am EDT

1 of 2. A Libyan walks at a house which was hit by a rocket fired from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on the rebel-held city of Misrata, June 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

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MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - The sheep were already dying, cut down by the ball bearings and twisted metal of the rocket that slammed into Salah Abdulrahman's backyard on the outskirts of this rebel-held Libyan city.

So in accordance with Islamic custom, he cut their throats for the meat to be considered halal.

Residents in this Mediterranean coastal city had thought they were finally beyond the range of Muammar Gaddafi's artillery when, weeks ago, they pushed his forces out of the city and went on the offensive.

The rocket strike on Wednesday in al-Araidat neighborhood, near Misrata's port, was the latest in a series of attacks over the past 10 days that have dispelled any notion that the city is out of danger.

The uptick in rocket attacks has coincided with battlefield setbacks to the west of the city, where the rebellion is hemorrhaging fighters as they try in vain to advance along the coast toward the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Nerves have been rattled, and Misrata -- scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of Libya's 4-month-old war -- is beginning to lay blame.

"There are spies all over Misrata," said Ashur, a neighbor of Abdulrahman, as he stepped between twisted sheep cadavers to inspect the hole bored by the rocket. "The fighters are trying to find them," he said.

An elderly man saw culprits elsewhere, and bellowed at the small crowd that had gathered. "All young men should be at the front!" he cried. "And look at you lot, just standing here."

HEAVY CASUALTIES

Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and a once-affluent trading hub, has won back some semblance of security since the brutal street-fighting and artillery siege of March, April and May.

Rebels pushed back pro-Gaddafi forces on three fronts some 25-40 km (16-25 miles) from the city center, and -- with NATO support from the air -- appeared to have the momentum to take the uprising to Tripoli.

But as on the war's other fronts, their advance has been halted by the superior firepower of pro-Gaddafi forces in the olive groves outside the government-held town of Zlitan, still some 160 km from the capital.

Better equipped for the urban fight, they are losing lives on open ground because of their tactical naivety.

Four rebels died on Wednesday outside Zlitan. Three of them were hit when a mortar landed nearby as they ate lunch -- typically a dangerous time because they tend to gather in large groups to eat.

In the past 10 days, more than 200 rebels have been taken out of the fight, at least 50 of them killed, raising questions about how long they can absorb such losses.

"We're in the same positions we were in 10 days ago," said Mohammad el-Ganudi, a 26-year-old fighter whose men were among those killed on Wednesday.

He pledged not to shave his beard until Gaddafi falls, but then tapped the empty magazine of his Kalashnikov rifle. "I have no ammunition," he said.

His three dead comrades were loaded into the back of an ambulance, and a rebel wrote "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) with his finger in the dirt of the back window.

ENEMY WITHIN

The mood at the frontline has soured considerably, with some senior rebels openly questioning the tactics of others.

Last week, commanders closed the frontline to press, saying an offensive on Zlitan was imminent. When the push never came, they accused the media of giving away battlefield positions and compromising the fight.

Rebels have also tried to prevent journalists from filming at the scene of rocket attacks in the city, arguing Gaddafi's men could refine their targeting based on television pictures of the strikes.

NATO has also come under fire, with rebels accusing the alliance of holding back. "If NATO wanted to, it could finish this in two days," said el-Ganudi. "Why aren't they helping?"

Some of the suspicion has more sinister undertones, and spells trouble for the future when Libya tries to reconcile enemies and heal wounds.

The central Misrata neighborhood of Goushi was hit by four rockets on Tuesday, the first time in weeks that the city center had taken a direct hit.

That only one man was wounded is thanks in part to the fact the area is largely deserted, its apartment blocks emptied of the darker-skinned Libyans who once lived here. Most were from the town of Tawergha, some 35 km to the south of Misrata, and returned there when the rebellion began.

Tawergha is in government hands. The people of Misrata consider Tawerghans, whose skin is typically much blacker than the average Libyan, to be firmly behind Gaddafi, and believe some of them are responsible for atrocities.

"This is Harlem; a black region," said 48-year-old Omar Alqawi, who stopped to talk to journalists in Goushi filming the aftermath of the strikes. "The rockets are coming from Tawergha," he said.

"Some of these people joined Gaddafi's forces. Those who hold guns against civilians, they will pay."

Graffiti on a low-rise apartment block read: "We're still searching for Gaddafi, and for his supporters."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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