MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Residents of this battle-scarred city in west Libya searched for food from poorly stocked shops on Sunday and rebels stripped weapons from the carcasses of Muammar Gaddafi’s armor.
Distant blasts rumbled through the eerily quiet roads of Misrata, Libya’s third biggest city and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since an uprising began in mid-February.
Rebels say they have pushed Gaddafi’s forces 25 km (15.5 miles) from the center of the besieged city after weeks of street fighting and bombardments.
The main shopping district lies ravaged by the fighting, its streets strewn with abandoned tanks, their turrets blown off.
The ruined contents of damaged shops spill onto the streets and bullet-pocked manikins litter the floor of a once-bustling shopping center.
Gutted restaurants were heaped with tables and chairs amid shattered glass. A clock atop a tower in a central square had stopped at 7.45. The turret of one dismembered tank was leaning upright against the entrance to a watch shop.
The sound of battle rumbled far in the distance.
Amran Zoufrey, 84, wept as he staggered through the town center past buildings blasted open or crumpled by the artillery shells and rockets that rained down upon Misrata for weeks.
“Look at all this. I can’t believe it,” he said. “If God hadn’t brought us NATO, they would have burned us all. Even in the Second World War, when I was young, we didn’t have this destruction. Now I wonder when the next rocket will come and kill me.”
Government forces shelled residential areas of Misrata on Saturday, according to rebels.
Hundreds have died in the siege of the port city since residents rose up against Gaddafi in late February. NATO air strikes against Gaddafi’s armor failed to stop the destruction.
Rebel fighters have erected sand berms at intersections and the central streets are empty of cars. Some rebels busied themselves stripping the gun placements from tanks.
One of them, 26-year-old Abdulhakim, said: “It’s quiet here in the city but they (Gaddafi’s forces) are on the outskirts. There was fierce fighting yesterday, every day.”
A ship chartered by the International Organization of Migration brought aid including flour and vegetables to Misrata late on Saturday.
A few street vendors were selling fresh vegetables but residents said they were surviving mostly off processed cheese and other goods that take longer to perish.
“It’s a catastrophe but we have hope. We’ve liberated our city,” said Ali el-Houti, a 42-year-old civil servant, as he walked through the street.
On Tripoli Street in central Misrata, the scene of some of the fiercest clashes, the tops of many buildings were still littered with empty bullet casings where snipers had taken positions.
Gaping holes in buildings around the Misrata’s Lawyer Syndicate suggest it saw some of the fiercest house-to-house fighting.
“All the people were scared. We were in the house listening to the explosions and tanks. The house shook many times,” said Youssef Faitouri, 55.