27 Apr 2011

Battle for control of Misrata’s port

NATO airstrikes force Gaddafi troops to withdraw from central areas of the besieged city of Misrata but shelling continues.

Misrata, the only rebel enclave in the west, offers a key sealink to the eastern rebel heartland.

It is the focus of Muammar Gaddafi’s drive to break a rebellion against his four-decade rule. But neither the army nor rebels backed by NATO air strikes have achieved any decisive victory after weeks of fighting.

A rebel spokesman said Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces withdrew on Tuesday but continued to bombard the port on Wednesday.

“Gaddafi’s forces retreated from the port area where they were positioned yesterday after air strikes by the NATO forces. The strikes completely destroyed 37 military vehicles,” a spokesman called Reda told Reuters.

Injured Libyan civilians rest aboard a ship during an evacuation operation from Misrata organized by IOM (23rd April, Reuters)

“The bombardment is still going on. They are using Grad missiles. Warplanes are flying over Misrata’s outskirts but I don’t hear any sound of strikes,” Reda said.

‘The world looks on’

The lull in shelling allowed the Red Star aid ship – an International Organisation for Migration vessel – to dock and unload after spending a night offshore.

The world looks on. Like it’s a movie. Like it’s not real. But it is real. It’s been 70 days now, Misrata hospital director

On board was Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson who said on Tuesday it appeared Gaddafi’s forces had retreated 10-12 miles away from the port but were shelling the it ‘with renewed intensity’.

After arriving Alex Thomson reported the distress of the director of the city’s only functioning hospital, which is now treating at least 100 patients at a site designed for 40 beds.

“The world looks on. Like it’s a movie. Like it’s not real. But it is real. It’s been 70 days now,” the hospital director said.

Read More: Alex Thomson in Misrata's hospital: You wonder what kind of existence awaits these men if they survive. But such questions cannot concern the exhausted medical staff here. Their oath demands they are here to preserve life and that is that.

Thousands of migrant worker are still stranded in Misrata, waiting for relief organisations to ship them to safety.

The IOM said at least one migrant from Niger was reported killed and up to 20 others wounded in the bombardment of the city a day earlier.

At least 1,500 migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa including Niger and Chad, have gathered at the port some 10-12 kms east of the city awaiting rescue, the group said.

International rifts

In Brussels, NATO confirmed that its warplanes had broken up an attack by pro-Gadhafi forces in Misrata on Tuesday night.

“NATO forces moved quickly to break up a force advancing on Misrata port,” spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. “Several NATO aircraft were directed to the area, and following careful assessment of the risk to civilians, our pilots struck.”

The Ministry of Defence confirmed British aircraft had taken part in the action over Misrata.

“RAF Tornado and Typhoon aircraft successfully engaged two regime artillery pieces south of Zlitan and seven armed pick-up trucks near Misratah,” Major General John Lorimer, spokesman for the Chief of the Defence Staff, said.

UN Human rights team

The latest violence in Misrata came as a UN human rights delegation arrived in Tripoli to investigate allegations of atrocities against civilians.

On arriving in Tripoli, the mission leader, Cherif Bassiouni, said his team wanted to ask the Libyan government “a number of questions dealing with the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and civilian areas, civilian casualties, torture and the use of mercenaries.”

The team also wanted to visit prisons and hospitals and raise the issue of foreign journalists being held, Prof Bassiouni said.

The Libyan government said it will co-operate with the inquiry

But the military deadlock in Libya has exposed growing international rifts, with critics accusing NATO of overstretching the terms of the UN resolution that authorised airstrikes to protect civilians.

“Is there a lack of such crooked regimes in the world?” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asked on Tuesday. “Are we going to bomb everywhere and conduct missile strikes?”