NATO strikes in Misrata but shelling resumes

NATO air strikes forced Libyan government troops to withdraw from one of their positions in the besieged city of Misrata overnight but they resumed bombardment of the port area using Grad missiles, a rebel spokesman said.

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi also fired the Russian-made Grad, a multiple-volley system which rights groups say is highly inaccurate, into the center of the rebel-held town of Zintan.

"There was intense bombardment this morning. Around 15 Grad rockets landed in the town center, two of them landed where I'm standing now," the spokesman, called Abdulrahman, said by telephone from Zintan, in the Western Mountains region.

"Five houses were destroyed. Nobody was killed, luckily, but some children were slightly wounded," he said.

Later on Wednesday, Gaddafi's forces began firing mortar rounds at a district in the west of Misrata, a rebel spokesman said. "They carried out intense bombardment, using mortars," the spokesman, called Safieddin, said by telephone from the city.

A U.N. human rights group arrived in Libya to investigate accusations pro-Gaddafi forces have violated human rights and attacked civilians. Libya says security forces were forced to act against armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathizers trying to seize control of the oil exporting country.

An aid ship took advantage of a brief lull in the fighting to rescue Libyans and a French journalist wounded in the fighting in Misrata, along with migrant workers, from the western rebel enclave and headed for Benghazi, center of the rebel heartland in the east.

"Despite heavy shelling of the port area ... about 935 migrants and Libyans have been rescued and are now safely en route to Benghazi," the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

Misrata has become the focus of Gaddafi's drive to break a rebellion against his four-decade rule. But neither the army nor rebels backed by British and French-led NATO air strikes have achieved a decisive victory in weeks of fighting that have destroyed large areas of the town.

"Gaddafi's forces retreated from the port area where they were positioned yesterday after air strikes by the NATO forces," a rebel spokesman called Reda told Reuters in Algiers by telephone from Misrata. "The strikes completely destroyed 37 military vehicles."

"Gaddafi's forces this morning started bombarding an area about 10 km (6 miles) north of the city. It is known as the Steel area. 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," he said by telephone.

Human Rights Watch says the Grad, which takes its name from the Russian word for "hail," is one of world's most inaccurate systems and should never be used in civilian areas.

Rights Group in Libya

U.N. investigators arrived in Tripoli and met Libyan officials.

"We have a number of questions dealing with indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, civilian casualties, torture and the use of mercenaries and other questions," said Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian legal expert and member of the U.N. commission.

A rebel spokesman in Misrata, Libya's third-biggest city, said eight local people had been killed in fighting on Tuesday, up from the previous figure of three killed. The rebels also noted shelling of the port had prevented some evacuations, after a Red Cross ship had to leave in a hurry on Tuesday.

Military deadlock in Libya has exposed growing international rifts, with critics of NATO bombing calling it another case of the West trying to overthrow a regime by stretching the terms of a U.N. resolution.

The rebels themselves have sometimes accused NATO of not doing enough to drive back Gaddafi's forces. Hampered by inexperience and a shortage of weapons, they also face problems with food supplies and financing for areas under their control.

The first major oil shipment from rebel-held east Libya, reported to be 80,000 tonnes of crude, was expected to arrive in Singapore on Thursday for refuelling but oil traders told Reuters finding a buyer was not straightforward, with many of the usual traders still worried about legal complications.

Britain's Defense Secretary said the campaign in Libya had made progress since U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen said last week the conflict was nearing stalemate, with rebels controlling the east and Gaddafi entrenched in the capital Tripoli.

"I don't think we're in a position of stalemate," Liam Fox said in parliament, citing a decision by Italy to join air raids, Kuwaiti funding for rebels and U.S. deployment of unmanned drones to support his argument.

[Source: By Lin Noueihed, Reuters, Tripoli, 27Apr11]

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