MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Heavy fighting rocked Misrata, overwhelming its hospital, as US drones entered the fray and official media said fresh NATO raids killed and wounded several people across Libya.
NATO planes staged raids on civil and military sites in the Libyan capital Tripoli and other cities Saturday, JANA news agency said, without confirming the number of people killed and wounded.
“A military source said civil and military sites were targeted by the colonialist aggressor,” it said, specifying that the strikes had also covered Al-Khums, Gharian, El Assa and Sirte, the birthplace of strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
Three new explosions rocked the Libyan capital in the late evening as NATO warplanes overflew Tripoli, AFP journalists said, after several earlier blasts in the city centre and outlying quarters.
Heavy anti-aircraft and automatic arms fire were also heard in many areas of the city.
Two of the earlier explosions came from downtown Tripoli, while the rest came from areas further out, but the targeted sites could not immediately be determined.
The United States earlier carried out its first Predator drone strike in Libya, which NATO said had destroyed one of the regime’s multiple rocket launchers (MRL) allegedly used to target civilians in the rebel-held city of Misrata besieged by regime troops.
Kadhafi’s regime has accused the United States of “new crimes against humanity” for deploying the low-flying, unmanned aircraft.
At least 26 people were killed and 100 wounded in street battles in the western port city of Misrata, a doctor said, while NATO air raids struck near a compound in Tripoli where Kadhafi resides.
Doctor Khalid Abu Falra at Misrata’s main private clinic told AFP the casualty toll was double that of a “normal” day of fighting in Libya’s third city between rebels and Kadhafi’s forces.
“We’re overwhelmed, overwhelmed. We lack everything: personnel, equipment and medicines,” he said.
Ambulances pulled up outside the hospital every five to 10 minutes, also bringing in wounded loyalists.
“We can’t go on at this rate. We are losing people who in normal times we would be able to treat,” said exhausted surgeon Mahmud Mohammed, as explosions and gunfire echoed from the streets.
Misrata, where the general hospital is in the hands of Kadhafi loyalists, has been the scene of deadly urban guerrilla fighting between the regime and outgunned rebels for more than six weeks.
The upsurge came after Kadhafi’s government said it had given its army an “ultimatum” to stop the rebellion in the city 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of the capital and that troops would withdraw at an unspecified date to be replaced by armed tribesmen.
However, the impact of such a move was unclear as militia “volunteers” were already believed to be among regime forces in Misrata. Any greater influx of such militiamen would complicate NATO efforts to distinguish between rebels and Kadhafi loyalists to minimize civilian casualties.
Hamed al-Hasi, a colonel coordinating rebel fighters at the western gate of the crossroads town of Ajdabiya in the east, said such a decision would signal the insurgents were beginning to win the battle for Misrata.
“This is the first nail in the coffin of Kadhafi. This means the Libyan army is no longer capable,” he said.
Omar Rajab, a 29-year-old rebel, said tribal fighters in plain clothes had joined the loyalist forces in Misrata, saying they “come from tribes in the south.”
NATO said it had kept a “high operational tempo” of over 3,000 sorties, nearly half of them strikes, since the transatlantic military alliance assumed full control of the mission late last month.
“We have struck a broad range of targets across the country — tanks and rocket launchers, armoured vehicles and ammunition stores, command and control sites,” it added in a statement.
An aid ship delivered 160 tonnes of food and medicine to the port city before a planned evacuation of around 1,000 stranded refugees.
Hundreds of Libyan families lined up along the harbour front in hope of getting on board the vessel chartered by the International Organisation for Migration, which has already transported 3,100 refugees from 21 countries out of the besieged city.
But Dakir Hussam, a Syrian electrician, expressed his delight at managing to get a place on the Red Star One.
“Kadhafi’s men shoot at anything that moves in the city, but they are also suffering a lot,” he said, referring to the burial he saw of up to a dozen loyalist fighters this week.
The UN refugee agency says about 15,000 people have fled fighting in western Libya into Tunisia in the past two weeks and a much larger exodus was feared.
Three people who escaped the violence in Libya were killed and 72 hurt when their truck overturned in northern Niger, that country’s state radio reported.
Anti-aircraft fire rang out and ambulance sirens wailed in the capital on Friday as NATO air strikes hit a patch of bare ground looking like a bunker opposite Kadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya residence in the centre of the capital.
Authorities who took foreign correspondents there on Saturday said they were “a parking lot” and “sewers.”
JANA reported two people died in NATO raids late Friday on the Zintan region, southwest of the capital, scene of heavy fighting between government forces and rebels who hold several towns.
The US military’s top officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, meanwhile said allied air strikes had already destroyed 30 to 40 percent of Kadhafi’s forces, sending the conflict toward a stalemate as the Red Cross warned the situation in Misrata could “rapidly deteriorate further.”
France, Italy and Britain have said they would send military personnel to eastern Libya, but only to advise the rebels on technical, logistical and organisational matters and not to engage in combat.
Massive Libyan protests in February — inspired by the revolts that toppled long-time autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia — escalated into war when Kadhafi’s troops fired on demonstrators and protesters seized several eastern towns.
The battle lines have been more or less static in recent weeks, however, as NATO air strikes have helped block Kadhafi’s eastward advance but failed to give the poorly organised and outgunned rebels a decisive victory.