MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Libyans who wanted to venture outside to celebrate rebel gains against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Misrata were prevented from doing so by government snipers in a tall building above Tripoli street.
After a two-week struggle over control of the structure - once home to an insurance company -- they finally got their chance after a victory late on Thursday night.
Smiling insurgents in sandals walked on top of one of the tanks and surveyed devastation that spoke volumes about the ferocity of the fighting in Misrata.
Libya’s third largest city has been under siege for over seven weeks.
Failure to crush resistance there would be a huge blow to Gaddafi, who lost Libya’s second largest city Benghazi to rebels after an uprising inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt erupted on February 17.
The Libyan leader appeared to have stationed some of his best men in what is known as The Insurance Building, now a dark shell of wreckage and smashed office furniture.
Rebels said seven snipers operating from the eight-story building severely restricted their movements.
“They shot at anything that moved. They were very good, very professional,” said rebel Badr Muhammad. Two of the snipers were killed, three were captured and two escaped, said another rebel.
The victory opened up a large swathe of pockmarked tactical space on Tripoli street - epicenter of the conflict here that has killed more than 350 people and wounded thousands.
One nervous elderly man kept saying a few of Gaddafi’s snipers may still be on the top floor of the building but rebels told him it was safe now.
“There is one of the rats,” said an insurgent, walking over a carpet of broken glass to the charred, decomposed body of a government soldier who lay on his back, legs twisted to one side beside some old water bottles.
“Gaddafi calls us rats but here is one.”
One insurgent threw a blanket over the corpse to try and ease the stench.
The soldier, still wearing his tank crew head gear, died in previous fighting which turned banks and shops into shredded and twisted metal and scattered pieces of cement. Projectiles fired in all directions blackened out parts of a mosque.
Branches in trees in a small park were also ripped apart.
Insurgents said Gaddafi’s forces had occupied three buildings while they held seven during the fighting.
Several tanks - which rebels said were destroyed by them or Western air strikes - suggested Gaddafi may have been on the verge of a major assault on Tripoli street.
One tank turret had been blown off and was leaning against a building.
A young rebel in sports goggles manning the mounted gun of a truck with a welded metal protection plate casually moved past as rebels congratulated each other and hugged.
But soon machinegun bursts from another area and a man on a loud hailer telling the few people who still live on Tripoli street to beware of any future mortar attacks served as a reminder that the battle for Misrata is still raging elsewhere.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher