MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Six Libyan rebel fighters were killed on Sunday and dozens more wounded by government artillery barrages near the rebel-held city of Misrata, doctors told Reuters.
After the clashes, Reuters reporters in Misrata heard warplanes in the sky over the city and then the sound of an air strike hitting the area to the west of the city where the fighting had taken place.
Pickups and ambulances were arriving at a field hospital in Misrata’s western Dafniya district carrying fighters who had been wounded in mortar attacks.
Medical workers were using buckets of water to clean up blood from the floor of the field hospital, which had been converted from is previous use as a garage. Mohammed Elbira, a doctor, said 28 people were wounded.
Accounts from doctors and fighters at the field hospital suggested that forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have been using civilian homes and farms to provide them with cover from NATO air strikes.
Elbira said the six fighters who died were involved in operations beyond the rebel lines, in farmland between the western edge of Misrata and the neighboring town of Zlitan.
He said they came under rocket attack soon after they approached a civilian house where pro-Gaddafi forces had been positioned, and that the rebel fighters found the bodies of two women lying outside the house.
Later, a pick-up arrived at the field hospital carrying 10 people, including scared-looking children, women with their faces veiled, and an elderly man.
A fighter traveling with them said they were members of the same family as the two dead women and that they had been brought behind rebel lines for their safety.
Earlier on Sunday, a Reuters reporter went out with a group of rebel fighters into an area of farmland between Misrata and Zlitan that had previously been held by pro-Gaddafi forces.
A tank had been abandoned in an olive grove by the government troops. It was 30 meters (yards) from a farmhouse and under the trees, making it difficult for NATO pilots to target it without hitting the house.
Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city, is about 200 km (130 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. For weeks it was the scene of bitter street-by-street fighting as Gaddafi’s troops tried to snuff out a rebellion there against his rule.
Rebel fighters have now pushed pro-Gaddafi forces out of the city itself, but the government troops still surround Misrata on three sides.
Officials in the Libyan capital deny that security forces have targeted civilians, and say the rebels are criminals and al Qaeda militants.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Jones