26 Apr 2011

Misrata under artillery fire as NATO looks for options

The besieged port city of Misrata has been bombarded by pro-Gaddafi forces, killing at least three people as the Foreign Secretary warns Britain should prepare to be involved for the “long haul”.

The shelling comes after Gaddafi’s forces moved out of the embattled city over the weekend, claiming they wanted local tribes to resolve the situation.

A rebel fighter said that Gaddafi’s troops attacked the eastern part of the city and that “fierce fighting” was taking place there, with at least three fighters killed.

A doctor in Misrata described “continuous shelling” of the port city as it comes under long range artillery fire.

A Libyan rebel fighter quickly rounds a corner and fires on trapped government loyalist troops a few meters away during house-to-house fighting in downtown Misrata April 20 (Getty)
Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson is on a ferry waiting to dock at Misrata. He writes:

"A few moments ago the usual distant sound of artillery was interrupted by two much larger explosions. Plumes of smoke rose from the horizon about ten miles south of Misrata.

"That is the area from which pro-Gaddafi forces have been shelling the town. It assumed these were NATO strikes either from the air or from the Italian naval frigate which sits currently a mile or two to the port side of the Red Star.

"Whatever effect the strikes may have had they have not stopped the shelling which continues with renewed intensity as I write..."

Read more on Alex Thomson's blog: In sight of Misrata

Hundreds of civilians and rebels have been killed in Misrata since the city turned against Gaddafi’s rule, making it a symbol of resistance.

The NATO military alliance says it is doing what it can to protect civilians in the city but Gaddafi’s forces have split up into small units and parked their tanks and rocket launchers next to buildings, making it hard for warplanes to find clear targets.

Dramatic video has also surfaced, showing rebel forces apparently successfully re-capturing the village of Al Majabira. The video (below) shows rebels attacking a village with pick up trucks, small arms and a mobile rocket launcher.

They are seen afterwards celebrating around the dead bodies of government soldiers, and showing the foreign ID cards of a captured soldier, reflecting claims that Gaddafi was employing mercenaries.

The fighting comes as Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Britain that the coalition must prepare for what he called the “long haul” as weeks of NATO air strikes seem to have little chance of removing Gaddafi from power.

He said that “the mission is going in the right direction but we need to prepare for the long haul.”

The Ministry of Defence released details of air strikes over the Easter weekend, detailing how several tanks and approximately a dozen rocket launchers were destroyed.

The number of air strikes has recently declined pointing to a lack of clear military targets for NATO to attack.

“Militarily, the fact is, the situation is not much different from what it was at the very beginning of the war,” said French strategic analyst Francois Heisbourg.

“Gaddafi is essentially controlling the same territory as he was at the beginning of the war, so he is not likely to leave power readily as part of a negotiated deal. So from the standpoint of the coalition it’s not a great result.”

Targeting Gaddafi?

Tripoli was quiet on Tuesday after a NATO strike on Gaddafi’s compound in the capital which Libyan officials said was an attempt to kill the leader.

Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform think tank said that despite NATO denials, it did seem the coalition was seeking ways to end the stalemate by targeting Gaddafi.

“NATO’s official mandate doesn’t involve removing Gaddafi from power, so the commanders would deny it and say they are going after communications posts and such, but to me it does smell that they are going after Gaddafi personally.

“That would mean a gap between what NATO collectively says it wants to do and what the French, the British and Americans say. That’s going to be a tough issue internally and it seems bound to create tensions within NATO,” he said.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said the West had no right to kill the Libyan leader:

“They said they didn’t want to kill Gaddafi. Now some officials say, yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi,” Putin said during a visit to Denmark. “Who permitted this, was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man?”

The Libyan leader has vowed to fight to the death, blaming foreign powers and al Qaeda for the insurgency.