DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - An assault on Libya’s rebel-held city of Misrata was stalled Sunday by renewed fighting between members of Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces, rebels said, but the government denied reports of a mutiny.
Residents said fighting broke out Saturday after some units of the Libyan leader’s force refused to attack Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city and the only place in the west of the country still openly defying Gaddafi’s rule.
The reports of a mutiny could not be verified because Libyan authorities have not allowed reporters access to the city of 300,000 which is 200 km (130 miles) east of the capital.
“From the early morning they (the security forces) are fighting among each other. We hear the fighting,” Mohammed, one of the rebel fighters, told Reuters by telephone Sunday.
“This division between them came to us from God. Just when we thought the end was coming, this happened. Now we are waiting to see what will happen.”
Asked about reports of a mutiny in Misrata, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said: “This is rubbish. It is not true.”
“The army has surrounded the center of Misrata. They are in the city. Tribal elders are talking to them (the rebels) to surrender,” he said in Tripoli.
Misrata residents said they could hear the sound of heavy fighting from a military airfield to the south of the town, where pro-Gaddafi forces have been based.
They said there were no clashes between rebels and security forces Sunday. By nightfall, the city was calm, even though fearful locals said they were bracing for a government assault.
“It’s quiet, the streets are empty, but we are expecting an attack at any moment,” said Mohammed, a resident, adding there was a shortage of emergency medical supplies in the city.
Earlier Gemal, a rebel spokesman, said that during fighting between Gaddafi’s forces a house and a shop had been hit by shelling. He did not know whether there were any casualties.
He said during the day shops had opened as normal, adding: “Of course there is tension as everybody is waiting to see what will happen.”
Reports of a mutiny in Misrata, though unconfirmed, will raise questions about the ability of Gaddafi’s security forces to press an offensive in the country’s east, where the rebels have their biggest stronghold.
Residents had said the main force preparing to attack Misrata was the 32nd Brigade. This is commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis and, according to military analysts, is the best trained and equipped force available to the Libyan leader.
Gaddafi, in power for four decades, lost control over large swathes of the oil exporting country last month in a revolt against his rule that took some of its inspiration from uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
But in the past week, the momentum has shifted back toward Gaddafi. His forces crushed a rebellion in Zawiyah, 50 km west of Tripoli, and drove the rebels in the east out of the oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega.