ALGIERS (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi drove tanks into the center of rebel-held Misrata on Sunday, residents said, two days after President Barack Obama demanded they pull back from the city.
Local people in Misrata, the only big rebel stronghold left in the west of Libya, said Western air strikes overnight hit pro-Gaddafi forces at their base south of the city, but that did not halt their attacks.
“There is fighting between the rebels and the Gaddafi forces. Their tanks are in the center of Misrata,” Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels, said by telephone from the city. “There are so many casualties that we cannot count them.”
“He (Gaddafi) is using a scorched earth strategy. Burning and destroying everything in his way,” said Abdelbasset.
It was impossible to verify accounts from Misrata because the Libyan authorities have prevented journalists from reaching the city. There was no immediate comment from Libyan officials.
Gaddafi’s forces — including units of the 32nd brigade commanded by his son Khamis — have been laying siege to Misrata for days, residents have said, but until Sunday rebel fighters had kept them confined to the city’s outskirts.
Misrata is Libya’s third biggest city and is about 200 km (120 miles) east of Tripoli. Local people say parts of the city have been destroyed by an artillery bombardment in the past few days that killed many people.
A resident called Sami said the tanks were supported by pro-Gaddafi snipers stationed on rooftops in the center of town who were shooting at anyone who came into range.
“Two people were killed so far today by snipers. They (snipers) are still on rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It’s getting very difficult for people to come out.”
He also said ships were blockading the city’s Mediterranean port to prevent rebels bringing in supplies.
He said he believed the pro-Gaddafi forces had entered the city center because once there, Western military aircraft would not target them for fear of killing civilians in adjacent houses.
“They are there to protect themselves from the air strikes,” he told Reuters.
In a speech on Friday, Obama named Misrata as one of the Libyan cities from which Gaddafi should withdraw his forces or face military intervention under the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Libyan officials say the rebels are al Qaeda militants trying to destroy the country, and they accuse Western countries involved in air strikes of committing terrorist acts.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Andrew Roche