* Soldiers say they were ordered to pull out
* U.S. drone hits rocket launcher near Misrata
* Government troops capture town in Western Mountains
(Adds capture of Yafran, drone target, other details)
By Michael Georgy
MISRATA, Libya, April 23 Rebels in Misrata
claimed victory as Libyan government troops retreated from front
lines, in what appeared to be a significant setback for Muammar
Gaddafi's forces hastened by NATO air strikes.
Misrata, the last large city held by rebels in western
Libya, had been under a punishing government siege for nearly
two months and hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting.
"We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw
yesterday," a government soldier captured by rebels, Khaled
Dorman, told Reuters on Saturday from the back of a pickup
He was among 12 wounded soldiers brought by rebels to
hospital in Misrata, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Blasts
and machinegun fire could be heard in the distance.
Another serviceman, asked by a Reuters correspondent if the
government had lost control of Misrata, said "yes".
Rebel spokesman Gemal Salem later told Reuters by telephone
from Misrata that Gaddafi's forces had left the city but
remained outside and would still be in a position to bombard it.
"Misrata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi's forces,
some are killed and others are running away," he said.
But the overall trend of fighting in Libya was far from
clear. Al Jazeera television reported that heavy fighting
continued around a hospital in western Misrata being used as a
base by Gaddafi's forces.
And government forces captured the town of Yafran in Libya's
Western Mountains on Saturday, a rebel spokesman said.
The conflict in the Western Mountains has received little
international attention. Rebels there captured a border post two
days ago and had begun been rushing supplies to towns under
attack, saying they were cheered by reports from Misrata.
More on Libya [nLDE72H00G]
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DRONE HITS ROCKET LAUNCHER
The Libyan government said late on Friday that NATO air
strikes had taken their toll on its forces.
"The tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical
solution, but it doesn't work, with the air strikes it doesn't
work," Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said.
"The situation in Misrata will be eased, will be dealt with
by the tribes around Misrata and the rest of Misrata's people
and not by the Libyan army," he told reporters in Tripoli.
Washington launched its first Predator drone strike on
Saturday, the U.S. Defense Department said. NATO later said the
target had been a multiple rocket launcher which had been used
against civilians in Misrata.
A British military spokesman said British warplanes had
destroyed government armoured vehicles near Misrata and in other
areas of Libya in recent days.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata, Abdelsalam, said pro-Gaddafi
tribes were in a minority in the area:
"There are two small pro-Gaddafi settlements outside
Misrata. They make up less than 1 percent of the population of
Misrata and the surrounding area."
"Those people know that when Gaddafi's regime falls, they
will fall with it," he added, predicting the government would
boost their strength by paying mercenaries to pose as tribesmen.
Rebel spokesman Salem said rebels were now combing Misrata
and clearing the streets. Before leaving, he said, Gaddafi's
forces had booby-trapped bodies, houses and cars.
"One man was opening his fridge when he went to his house
after the Gaddafi forces left it this morning and it blew up in
his face. Bodies the same. When the rebels are trying to lift a
body it blows up," he said.
A rebel spokesman told Al Jazeera television at least 15
people had been killed by booby-traps and ambushes and 31
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Libyan Prime
Minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi on Saturday that Moscow could
send observers to monitor a ceasefire and pave the way for a
peaceful solution, Libya's official JANA news agency said. Greek
Prime Minister George Papandreou also spoke with Mahmoudi.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi was reported by
Tunisian news agency TAP to be in Tunisia on Saturday evening.
Western countries, which began U.N.-mandated air strikes
last month to protect civilians from Gaddafi's forces, have
vowed not to stop bombing Libya until he leaves power.
Analysts said the use of drones would be a psychological
boost for the rebels but would not tip the balance in a conflict
which the top U.S. military officer said on Friday was nearing a
NATO bombs struck what appeared to be a bunker near
Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound in central Tripoli.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said three people had
been killed by the "very powerful explosion" in a car park.
Reuters journalists said the area was surrounded by a wall
and guarded by watchtowers and soldiers. They saw two large
holes where the bombs had torn through soil and reinforced
concrete, to pierce what appeared to be an underground bunker.
Smoke was rising from one of the craters and ammunition
crates lay nearby. Ibrahim said the area was disused and the
ammunition boxes were empty.
NATO said it had conducted 59 strike sorties on Friday and
hit two command and control bunkers in the capital as well as
three tanks, one bunker and other targets near Misrata.
British charity Save The Children said children as young as
eight being cared for in refugee camps had reported being
sexually assaulted by fighters during the conflict. The charity
could not say which side they came from.
Rebels' elation at the breaking of the siege of Misrata was
tempered by distrust of Tripoli. "I don't believe Gaddafi at
all," said Osama al-Misrati, 41, as he took his wife and
children by ferry from Misrata to the safety of Benghazi.
"If he really does withdraw it's for a tactical reason only.
We have to win this."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Alexander
Dziadosz in Benghazi, Lin Noueihed in Tripoli and Joseph Nasr in
Berlin; writing by Andrew Roche; editing by Kevin Liffey)