MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels waged fierce battles with pro-government troops in Misrata on Wednesday and nine civilians were reported killed, including an award-winning photojournalist and a Ukrainian doctor.
Libya’s third-largest city, the insurgents’ last major stronghold in the west of the country, has been under siege by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces for more than seven weeks in a civil war that erupted in February.
Doctor Khalid Abufalgha, of Misrata’s medical committee, said seven Libyan civilians were killed on Wednesday. The Ukrainian doctor was killed by a shell as he left his home in Misrata. His wife lost both legs.
Tim Hetherington, the co-director of Oscar-nominated war documentary “Restrepo,” was killed and Getty photographer Chris Hondros was in critical condition, doctors at the hospital where he was being treated said. Hondros had suffered brain injuries.
They were among a group caught by mortar fire on Tripoli Street, a main thoroughfare leading into the center of Misrata and scene of heavy clashes in recent weeks. “It was quiet and we were trying to get away and then a mortar landed and we heard explosions,” Spanish photographer Guillermo Cervera said.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in the city of 300,000, where aid groups say the humanitarian situation is worsening with a lack of food and medical supplies.
A long queue for petrol was one sign of the hardship. Electricity has been cut in the city so residents depend on generators. Thousands of stranded foreign migrant workers are awaiting rescue in Misrata’s port area.
“Fierce fighting is taking place now on the Nakl el Thequeel road which leads to the port. Gaddafi forces have been trying to control this road to isolate the city,” Abdelsalam, a rebel spokesman, said earlier.
“NATO warplanes are flying over Misrata but I do not know if there are strikes,” he said by phone from the city. “NATO has been inefficient in Misrata. NATO has completely failed to change things on the ground.”
Abdelsalam said “violent fighting” had erupted on Tripoli Street in the morning. “Civilians can not come out for fear of being shot dead,” he said.
Libyan officials say they are fighting militia with ties to al Qaeda bent on destroying the oil-producing North African state. They deny that government troops are shelling Misrata and its civilians.
The rebels “are now controlling 50 percent of the street. The other 50 percent is controlled by Gaddafi soldiers and snipers,” another rebel spokesman, Reda, said, referring to Tripoli Street. Like Abdelsalam, he only gave his first name.
Reda said the area near the city’s port — an insurgent-held zone that is a lifeline for trapped civilians and for badly needed food and medical supplies — was calm in the morning.
The insurgents’ claims of gains on the ground in recent days — despite heavy shelling by government forces at times — have not been verified independently.
A ship bringing humanitarian aid to Misrata arrived in the port on Wednesday aiming to evacuate more stranded migrants, estimated to number around 5,000 in the port area.
“We don’t know whether we will be able to reach them, however,” Jeremy Haslam of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement.
In New York, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Libyan officials she spoke to in Tripoli last weekend promised to ensure the security of aid workers trying to get to Misrata.
“So we will try to get to Misrata by road as well as trying to get in by sea,” she told reporters.
Amos, who said she would send a team to Tripoli next weekend following an agreement she signed to set up a presence in the Libyan capital, repeated that her department did not at present need a military escort offered by the European Union.
But she said that if civilian means of getting in aid became impossible, “we would have the opportunity to call on them for support from military assets.”