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Wed 27 Apr 2011 10:40 AM

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Gaddafi forces try to cut off Misrata from port

Libyan officials deny killing civilians in Misrata; say they are fighting armed gangs and Al Qaeda sympathisers

Gaddafi forces try to cut off Misrata from port
(Getty Images)
Gaddafi forces try to cut off Misrata from port

Forces loyal to Libyan leader

Muammar Gaddafi tried to deny rebels in the city of Misrata

their only lifeline to the outside world by shelling the port

and the areas around it on Tuesday, rebels and residents said.

Misrata, the biggest rebel stronghold in the west of Libya

still resisting Gaddafi's forces, is encircled on three sides

and depends on its Mediterranean port - under fragile rebel

control - to bring in supplies.

Gaddafi's forces have pulled out of the centre of Misrata

after weeks of shelling and gun battles failed to root out rebel

fighters who harass government troops from the cover of

bombed-out buildings.

But the withdrawal appears to have been only tactical, with

pro-Gaddafi forces positioning themselves on the edge of the

city and using heavy artillery to bombard the port and the area

around it in the east of Misrata.

Rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said the insurgents appeared to

have held off Gaddafi's forces in fierce fighting during which

at least three people were killed and 10 wounded. A NATO air

attack helped.

One resident, Mohammed Ibrahim, said the NATO planes had

struck a convoy of scores of jeeps, destroying some and forcing

others to retreat to the east.

Several containers were destroyed and some cars damaged in

the bombardment of the port. The shelling stopped after

nightfall, but it was unclear whether that was just temporary.

A rebel spokesman called Bashir said Gaddafi's forces were

using Grad missiles -- Russian-made munitions fired in multiple

rounds from launchers on the back of trucks -- to attack the

port.

Libyan officials deny killing civilians in Misrata, saying

they are fighting armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathisers who are

seeking to destroy the country.

A doctor in the city, called Aimen, told Reuters that

Gaddafi's forces were conducting "continuous shelling to the sea

port" and that the bombardment was being done at long-range.

Misrata, Libya's third-biggest city, is about 200 km (130

miles) east of the capital. Hundreds of civilians and fighters

have been killed there since the city rebels against Gaddafi's

rule in February, turning it into 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 armour next to buildings,

making it hard for warplanes to find clear targets.

NATO planes bombed Khoms, about halfway between Tripoli and

Misrata, on Tuesday, state news agency Jana said.

Misrata experienced some of the bloodiest fighting in the

two-month siege at the weekend, with medics saying nearly 50

people were killed. Witnesses described bodies lying in the

streets and doctors struggling to cope with the wounded.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station on Tuesday

afternoon broadcast live pictures from Misrata of women and

children waving the green, black and red flag adopted as a

symbol of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.

Demonstrators held up photos of people they said had been

kidnapped by government forces, and they said they would carry

on their struggle against "the tyrant".