TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Government forces retreated in Misrata but seized a rebel town in Libya’s remote Western Mountains, as no sign emerged of Muammar Gaddafi being dislodged from power despite more than a month of air strikes.
“Misrata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi’s forces, some are killed and others are running away,” a rebel spokesmen said in the rebel coastal city, where a punishing two-month siege that killed hundreds appeared to have been broken.
One government soldier, Khaled Dorman, among a group of 12 being brought to hospital for treatment in Misrata, told Reuters from the back of a pickup truck: “We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday.”
But the overall trend of fighting in Libya was far from clear. Al Jazeera television reported that heavy fighting continued on Saturday around a hospital in western Misrata being used as a base by Gaddafi’s forces.
And government forces captured the town of Yafran in Libya’s Western Mountains on Saturday, a rebel spokesman said.
The conflict in the remote mountains has received little international attention. Rebels there captured a border post two days ago and had begun been rushing supplies to towns under attack, saying they were cheered by reports from Misrata.
“Gaddafi brigades seized control of the (Yafran) town center and we are currently in nearby villages,” the spokesman, who identified himself as Ezref, told Al Arabiya television.
“They are firing mortars and Grad missiles,” he said, adding that he had counted more than 44 Grad rockets fired in one hour.
Yafran and other mountain towns are inhabited by Berbers, ethnically distinct from most Libyans and traditionally viewed with suspicion by Gaddafi’s government.
At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli on Saturday evening after NATO aircraft flew over the capital, drawing Libyan anti-aircraft fire.
Western militaries appeared keen to take some credit for the government retreat in Misrata. Britain said its planes had attacked armored vehicles in the area and NATO said the first U.S. Predator drone to fire over Libya had hit a rocket launcher near the city on Saturday.
President Nicolas Sarkozy told a rebel leader this week that France would intensify its air strikes.
The Libyan government acknowledged on Friday the raids had taken their toll on its forces in Misrata.
“The tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical solution, but it doesn’t work, with the air strikes it doesn’t work,” Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said.
Analysts said the scale of British and French air raids may still be too modest to bring a decisive military result. The new use of U.S. drones would be a psychological boost for rebels but no “magic bullet” to break the stalemate in a war where Western powers are anxious to limit their military involvement.
Shashank Joshi of London’s Royal United Services Institute said the drones’ deployment reflected U.S. reluctance to provide low-flying manned aircraft, such as the A-10 Tankbuster and the AC-130 gunship, which France in particular had pressed for.
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Misrata; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Peter Graff