MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched a heavy assault on the coastal city of Misrata on Saturday, killing at least 30 rebel fighters, a rebel spokesman said citing comrades and medics.
Identifying himself as Abdelsalem, the rebel said government forces attacked three different parts of the city before rebel fighters beat them back.
Misrata, 200 km (125 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, is the last rebel bastion in western Libya. Gaddafi’s forces appear bent on seizing the city and crucially its port, which some analysts say Gaddafi needs if he is to survive a long conflict.
“Today they (government troops) attacked Misrata on three fronts. Medical workers and rebels told me that at least 30 rebel fighters were killed in Misrata today,” said Abdelsalem.
A second rebel spokesman, Saadoun, disputed the figure and said the day’s rebel death toll was eight confirmed and 10 unconfirmed.
The fighting centred on Tripoli street, a major artery running into the center of Misrata that both sides have been fighting to control, as well as a road leading to the port and a neighbourhood called Kharouba, he added.
Despite the heavy losses, the rebels were buoyed by the apparent intensification of NATO air strikes on government forces who have laid siege to the city for more than six weeks.
“I have to say that the NATO forces have changed since yesterday, we are sensing a positive change. They have bombed at least four sites held by Gaddafi’s forces in Misrata,” a rebel called Mustafa Abdulrahman told Reuters by telephone.
Coalition aircraft also attacked a target in the southern outskirts of the city, a Libyan official said. “This smoke is from a NATO air strike which hit today,” the official said, pointing to a plume of black smoke.
As darkness fell over deserted streets in Misrata’s southern outskirts, a Reuters correspondent reported hearing the boom of artillery and saw smoke swirling above the city from several different locations.
In one Gaddafi-controlled neighbourhood, pick-up trucks packed with militia fighters sped toward the city, passing government checkpoints manned by militia fighters and reinforced by anti-aircraft guns.
Journalists had been promised a trip to central Misrata to show that the city was firmly under government control, but the bus was diverted to another location on Misrata’s southern fringe.
There, many buildings including a mosque and a hospital were pockmarked with bullet holes. Some had clearly been hit by artillery shells.
After weeks of encirclement, shelling and sniper fire, residents in Misrata say essential food stuffs are running low, the water supply is sporadic and hospitals are overflowing.
Up to 80 percent of the city has no electricity, rebels estimate.
A Red Cross-chartered vessel carrying enough medical supplies to treat 300 patients with weapons wounds docked in Misrata on Saturday, helping the agency to extend its activities to western Libya, the Red Cross said.
Reinforcements and supplies also reached Gaddafi’s forces.
“The Gaddafi forces received supplies last night and reinforcements on the eastern side of the city. It seems they want to enter the port,” Abdulrahman said.
It is difficult to verify the reports independently because journalists have not been allowed to report freely from Misrata. Gaddafi says he is fighting armed gangs with ties to al Qaeda.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Tim Pearce