RABAT (Reuters) - NATO air strikes helped Libyan rebels seize the airport in Misrata this week but they know the victory is unlikely to break the deadlock in their war to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Both rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi have struggled to hold military gains during eight weeks of fighting in the port city. So even though rebels captured government weapons at the airport they remain vulnerable to counter attack, rebels said.
"This is a big victory but not the end of the battle. NATO needs to do more because Gaddafi's threat is still there, mainly on the outskirts of the city. Many families are still encircled in some areas," rebel spokesman, Mohamed, said by telephone.
Tripoli says most Libyans support Gaddafi. It calls the rebels armed criminals and al Qaeda militants and says NATO's intervention is an act of colonial aggression.
Throughout their campaign, rebels have faced superior government firepower and more disciplined troops and those obstacles remain, putting this week's gain into perspective.
Gaddafi's forces remain entrenched in the capital and western Libya three months into the war, while rebels control Benghazi and other towns in the oil-producing east.
Misrata is cut off from other rebel territory but it matters because it is the only western city they control. The airport battle shows they have moved off the defensive in the city, a change Mohamed credited in part to NATO.
"Controlling the airport was made possible thanks to NATO's help," he said.
But in a sign of the fragile situation, he said government tanks and mortars attacked the Tamina area east of the city and in Zawiyat al-Mahjoub in the west. More worryingly for the rebels, Gaddafi forces could bombard the port at any moment.
"The situation in the port area is quiet but we expect Gaddafi's forces to target it at any moment from their positions in the east. The goal is to prevent ships from taking wounded people and bringing food and medicine," he said.
The airport's strategic value derives in part from its location on a coastal highway that connects east and west Libya -- either side seeking to advance beyond the war's rough frontier must use that road or take a much longer route.
It will also provide a short term psychological boost to rebels weakened by divisions and gaffes.
Yet a NATO military official was cautious about the battle's impact, stressing that rebels could not easily put the airport to use without securing surrounding territory. Aid agencies also said it was too soon to use the airport to deliver supplies.
"We need to be cautious because in the past all along the front one side then the other takes ground then gives it up and there's a bit of a see saw effect," the NATO official said.
NATO may have aided the rebel push by attacking government firepower around Misrata but the objective was to pursue the organization's mandate to protect civilians, he said.
"Did our efforts have an impact on the taking of the airport? More than likely. Was that our intent? No," he said.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, editing by Alison Williams