* Residents say shelling continued into the evening
* Rebels claim victory over Gaddafi forces attack
* Misrata is last big rebel stronghold in west Libya
(Updates with shelling into the evening, details of fighting)
By Souhail Karam and Mariam Karouny
RABAT/TUNIS, March 18 (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s army fought in vain to capture rebel-held Misrata on Friday and shelled the city into the evening, ignoring a ceasefire Libya declared, a resident in the embattled city said.
Shelling began early in the morning and tapered off after nightfall, the resident named Mohammad said. Gaddafi battalions backed by about 40 tanks fought with rebels in the city for most of the afternoon before the pulled out again, he said.
Doctors in the city reported at least 38 dead from what they called indiscriminate shelling and heavy fighting when the army entered Misrata with Russian-made T-72 and T-55 tanks, armoured troop carriers and pick-up trucks with heavy machine guns.
“They were attacked by the rebels,” Mohammad said. “We managed to destroy 11 of their vehicles, including a couple of tanks. We took one of their tanks and five pick-up trucks. The battle lasted for about four to five hours before they left.”
The army entered the city of 300,000 shortly after Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa said Libya had decided to halt all military operations in the country to protect civilians and comply with the U.N. resolution, Mohammad said.
A doctor in Misrata, the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya, earlier said at least 38 people had been killed in the assault launched on Friday morning, in the wake of the U.N.’s security vote late on Thursday.
“Gaddafi’s forces are bombarding the city with artillery shells and tanks,” Dr Khaled Abou Selha told Reuters by satellite phone. “They are even bombarding ambulances. I saw one little girl with half of her head blown off,” he said, crying.
The reports could not be independently verified because journalists are barred from travelling to the city.
The official JANA news agency quoted an unnamed military spokesman expressing “astonishment over Reuters’ insistence on repeating allegations that the Libyan army forces bombed Misrata today, despite the government spokesman’s denial of those allegations when they first surfaced.”
Tariq, a doctor in Britain in close contact with doctors in Misrata, said in the afternoon: “They are still shelling as we speak. The foreign minister obviously lives in a different time zone. It’s indiscriminate.”
Rebels said the attack on the city, located 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, started at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT), hours after the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a no-fly zone and attacks on Gaddafi’s forces to protect civilians.
Shells hit mosques, schools and residential buildings, they said. “It’s the heaviest bombardment I have seen so far. We believe they (Gaddafi’s forces) want to enter the city at any cost before the international community starts implementing the U.N. resolution,” said Saadoun, a rebel fighter.
“On behalf of all the people of Misrata, the women, the children and the elderly, we call on the international community to do something before it’s too late. They must act now,” he said. “They already failed us before and were late in taking a decision, they should not repeat the same mistake.”
Gaddafi’s forces have repeatedly attacked Misrata in the past two weeks. Water supplies have been cut off, there are frequent power cuts and communications are very difficult, residents said. (Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in Tripoli; Writing by Silvia Aloisi and Tom Heneghan; Editing by Jon Boyle)