ALGIERS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - People in the Libyan city of Misrata are crammed five families to a house in the few safe districts to try to escape mortar rounds being fired by government forces, a rebel spokesman said Thursday.
Rebels fought forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi on a key road to the city’s port as government forces tried to advance, two rebel spokesmen said. Rebels also fought government snipers and pushed some back from their positions near the center, a political activist said.
Government troops have mounted mortars on the rooftops of buildings, extending their range into almost every part of the city, rebels said. Misrata is the only big rebel stronghold left in western Libya, but weeks of artillery attacks and sniper fire have shrunk the parts of the city controlled by rebels.
NATO, under a UN mandate, is trying to protect civilians through air strikes but can do little in built-up areas.
“It does not seem there is a safe place in Misrata any more,” rebel spokesman Hassan al-Misrati said by phone. “They are using mortars, a lot of mortars, and firing anywhere. They do not care where it lands. This crazy man (Gaddafi) has turned hysterical and wants to kill as many people as he can.
“His forces have even attacked the cemetery. What is in the cemetery but dead people? But he doesn’t care,” Misrati said.
Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because the Libyan authorities have not allowed journalists to report freely from the city.
Residents say they and thousands of migrant workers stranded there face shortages of basic foodstuffs, a lack of medical supplies and have only sporadic water and electricity.
A United Nations World Food Program (WFP) vessel reached Misrata port Thursday with food, medical supplies, doctors and other relief goods, the WFP said.
Fighting broke out in the evening on a road to the port used by heavy trucks, two rebel spokesmen said. One later said that rebels had turned back the Gaddafi forces’ advance and one rebel was killed in the fighting.
“The forces tried to advance toward the port from the east and they clashed with the rebels who pushed them back,” said one spokesman called Gemal.
Rebels in Misrata, Libya’s third biggest city about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, control the Mediterranean Sea port and the northern and eastern districts. Until now they have been under fire from long-range artillery.
Political activist Mohamad Jaber said there was intermittent fighting Thursday and NATO planes had appeared over Misrata.
“The rebels fought with the snipers today and had a tough battle. They have managed to push them back from some parts of Tripoli Street. This is a major development,” he said by phone.
He said some snipers were killed. A rebel spokesman called Nasser said there were clashes around the Tripoli Street area.
“I am at the hospital and can tell you that one person was killed and 17 people were injured today. This is according to a list given to me by doctors,” he said by phone.
Residents say pro-Gaddafi forces, backed by tanks and snipers on rooftops, have pushed further into the city and are now using shorter-range mortar fire.
“Because there are few safe areas in Misrata, many families are living together in the same house ... at least four or five families together in one house. The snipers are on top of 14-storey buildings ... they brought the mortars up on to the buildings too to reach more areas inside Misrata,” Misrati said.
Officials in Tripoli deny targeting civilians but say they are battling armed gangs linked to al Qaeda who are terrorizing the civilian population. Rebels said five people were killed in bombardments Wednesday and 25 injured.
“They (Gaddafi forces) have unlimited weapon supplies but the rebels may well run out of ammunition,” a rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam said by phone. “That’s very worrying.”
NATO-led Western forces say they have staged air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets in Misrata under their United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
“The coalition bombed the camps of the Hamza (brigade) yesterday. The strikes hit the outskirts of the city,” said Mohamed, referring to a pro-Gaddafi militia attacking Misrata. “The brigades stopped their bombardment for fear of coming under new attacks by the coalition.”
Some in Misrata say NATO should be doing more. Misrati said NATO warplanes attacked a line of 15-20 tanks Wednesday on the outskirts of Misrata but damaged only one. “NATO does not seem to be efficient. We are very angry with them,” he said.
A spokeswoman at NATO headquarters in Brussels has said Misrata is a priority for NATO air strikes and the alliance will keep up the pace of attacks, even though pro-Gaddafi forces are moving tanks into residential areas.
Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Tim Pearce