TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan government forces destroyed four fuel storage tanks and set several others ablaze in rebel-held Misrata, dealing a blow to the port city’s ability to withstand a government siege, rebels said on Saturday.
The bombardment of the western city came as artillery rounds fired by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fell in Tunisia in an escalation of fighting near the border with rebels trying to end Gaddafi’s rule of more than four decades.
Misrata, the last remaining city in the west under rebel control, has been under siege for more than two months and has witnessed some of the war’s fiercest fighting.
Rebels gave varying accounts of the bombardment but said the attack hit fuel used for export as well as domestic consumption.
“Four (fuel) tanks were totally destroyed and a huge fire erupted which spread now to the other four. We cannot extinguish it because we do not have the right tools,” rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan told Reuters.
“Now the city will face a major problem. Those were the only sources of fuel for the city. These tanks could have kept the city for three months with enough fuel,” he said by telephone.
Video of the incident posted on YouTube by Libyan students in Misrata showed firefighters turning water hoses on a raging fire in a vain attempt to extinguish it.
Hassan said rebels notified NATO about the planes before the attack but there had been no response. Government forces last month flew at least one helicopter reconnaissance mission over Misrata, according to rebels.
NATO coalition aircraft have been bombing Libyan government military targets and enforcing a no-fly zone under a U.N. resolution. Western and Arab countries this week agreed to provide rebels with millions of dollars in non-military aid to help them keep services and the economy running.
Rebels have long been demanding they also need more heavy weapons to take on the Libyan leader’s better-armed and trained forces.
On Saturday, the rebels said they had reached an agreement with Italy to supply them with weapons, but the former colonial power denied the report.
Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, told journalists at a news conference in Benghazi that the weapons would be supplied to the rebels soon.
In Rome, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said no such agreement had been reached.
“There has been no agreement to supply them with weapons,” the spokesman told Reuters.
Italy has thrown its full support behind the rebels, formally recognizing the transitional council as the only legitimate representatives of the country, but it is unlikely it would go further than other countries in the anti-Gaddafi coalition.
Fighting has intensified in Libya’s Western Mountains region as Gaddafi loyalists and rebels, backed by NATO bombing, reached stalemate on other fronts in the civil war.
Government forces surrounding the rebel-held Zintan fired 300 rockets into the town on Saturday, rebel spokesman Abdulrahman al-Zintani said. He gave no details of casualties in Zintan, which is largely empty of civilians.
“NATO aircraft can be heard but there have been no air strikes,” al-Zintani told Reuters.
The Tunisian town of Dehiba has been hit repeatedly by stray shells in recent weeks, and on Saturday Tunisia condemned the “extremely dangerous” shelling and said it would take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty.
The Libyan government denied it targeted Tunisian soil deliberately.
“We said this (shelling) was an error and we have apologized that this took place and have asked the military forces to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi told a news conference in Tripoli.
The battle is for control of the Dehiba-Wazzin border crossing, which gives the rebels a road from the outside world into strongholds in the Western Mountains region.
Although the rebels hold the border point, Gaddafi’s forces are in charge of a far bigger one to the north.
On Saturday Dehiba’s schools were evacuated and residents scurried for safety as close to 100 mortars and missiles fell.
The crackle of small arms fire as well as larger weapons could also be heard about 4 km (2.5 miles) inside Libya, a Reuters witness on the border said.
“We are very afraid. The missiles are falling right around us, we don’t know what to do,” said Tunisian Mohammed Naguez, a resident of Dehiba. “Our children are afraid. The Tunisian authorities have to stop this.”
Most of the people in the Western Mountains belong to the Berber ethnic group and are distinct from other Libyans.
They rose up two months ago and say towns such as Zintan and Yafran are under repeated bombardment from Gaddafi’s forces, running short of food, water and medicine.
The civil war over Gaddafi’s rule has split the oil-producing desert state into a government-held western area round the capital Tripoli and an eastern region held by ill-disciplined but dedicated rebel forces.
The revolt is the bloodiest yet against long-entrenched rulers across the Middle East and North Africa, which saw the overthrow of the veteran presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.
Reporting by Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Matt Robinson and Tarek Amara in Dehiba and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Matthew Bigg and Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Michael Roddy
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