MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Hassan Saleh never imagined how his work day on Tripoli Street would end up when he studied to become a banker in the city of Misrata.
The day starts with incoming mortar rounds in the middle of the night. Then it gets really terrifying.
“The snipers start on us. Then there are rockets. Things are really bad,” said Saleh, sheltering behind a cement wall from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in the besieged city.
Around him, buildings are burned out and pulverized from seven weeks of fighting.
Twisted metal and bullet cases riddle the streets of Libya’s third city, whose resistance has become a symbol of the battle by rebels to topple Gaddafi in the name of democracy.
Tripoli Street is at the heart of the fighting and rebels there are trying to figure out how best to simply survive.
Just down the street, say Saleh and his comrades, are 300 soldiers and militiamen holed up in a fortified old hospital they are using to launch mortars and rockets.
Occasionally, Gaddafi loyalists move up and down the streets in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons. Snipers blend into the ruins to track rebel movements meticulously.
“Gaddafi’s fighters taunt us. If they are in a nearby building they yell at us at night to scare us. They insult us and call us rats,” said one rebel.
Gaddafi dismisses the rebels as rats and says they are sent by al Qaeda to destabilize Libya and make it a militant base.
The insurgents now rely on Western powers, who set up a no-fly zone to destroy Gaddafi’s tanks. But as the rebels have found, there is a limit to much protection that offers.
Routes leading into Tripoli street are blocked by huge orange dump trucks or heavy tree trunks so tanks can’t get through. Sometimes the best the rebels can manage are mattress frames or scavenged car parts.
From defense to attack, it’s all about improvisation.
“When we want to try and advance we just scream Allah hu Akbar (God is Greatest). Some run to the left, some run to the ‘right and one guy usually just shoots down the middle,” said rebel Abdel Raouf, 32, who worked in Libya’s tourism industry before trading hotel brochures for a worn automatic rifle.
Another rebel, resting on a dirt lane, said “We don’t have a leader. All decisions are personal on the front line.” Nearby, an insurgent peered through binoculars at a pockmarked green and white building, scanning for the enemy.
Gaddafi’s loyalists are trying to gain the edge on Tripoli Street with their superior firepower.
They fired more than 40 mortars overnight, the insurgents say. One landed in a mound of sand the rebels set up a few feet from a room where they sipped tea.
That one hurt nobody, but others did.
The corpses of three rebels were laid beside each other in Misrata’s hospital. Comrades stood over them and wept. Others stuck their faces between their knees and trembled in despair.
Despite the losses, the fighters in Misrata appear more disciplined than the ragtag rebels along Libya’s east -- who run away from attacks rather than digging in.
In Misrata, the insurgents are defending homes and neighborhoods and not the remote desert roads of the east. With their backs to the sea, the rebels have nowhere to run.
The insurgents score some successes too.
Olive uniforms mark where Gaddafi’s soldiers fell. Three charred corpses are what remains from what the rebels say were African mercenaries, though Gaddafi denies using hired guns.
Two very nervous African men are led past for questioning.
“To hell with you Gaddafi,” said one fighter proudly.
One kilometer (half a mile) further down Tripoli Street, the rebels call themselves the “Martyrs Unit.” They stand beside a government vehicle seized in battle.
The car was quickly painted in rebel colors and a poster of a young Libyan taped to its windshield -- a brother of one of the fighters who was killed by a rocket.
Although the rebels are fighting hard to keep their hold on Tripoli Street, there is little sign they can push back Gaddafi’s forces without significant Western help.
The rebels want that to go beyond air support,
“There is no way we will be able to keep Gaddafi away from Misrata, from coming back in full force, unless foreign armies launch a ground invasion,” said insurgent Abu Bakr, 32. “It’s the only way we can win.”
Editing by Matthew Tostevin
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