Libyan government forces bombarded a residential area outside Misrata said rebels trying to maintain their grip on the city in the face of a fierce onslaught.
Fighting in the port city has ebbed and flowed over the past few weeks but rebels gained ground on Monday after hundreds of them broke through a front line and consolidated their positions west of the city, according to a report in the New York Times.
Misrata is key to rebel hopes of overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi because it is the last city they control in the west of the North African country, Reuters reports.
The Libyan leader has not appeared publicly since April 30, when a NATO air strike on a house in the capital killed his youngest son and three of his grandchildren, leading some Arab diplomats to question why he has remained out of sight.
Fresh battles erupted in Souk al Arab south of the city and at al-Ghiran near the city’s airport, a rebel spokesman said.
“The revolutionaries (rebels) entered the area of Souk al Arab … Fighting is taking place there now,” said rebel spokesman Belkacem from Misrata. His comments could not be independently confirmed.
Rebels also took the town of Zareek, about 25 km (15 miles) west of Misrata, after fighting on Monday but were still trying to extinguish fuel tanks ignited overnight on Friday in a government attack, he said.
“Gaddafi’s forces bombarded a residential area west of the city this morning at 0300 (local time). That area was subject to random bombardment,” he said by telephone.
NATO appeared to back up the rebel claim.
“Pro-Gaddafi forces have continued to shell the citizens of Misrata with longer range artillery, mortars and rockets, indiscriminately firing high explosive rounds into the city,” said Brigadier-General Claudio Gabellini, chief operations officer of NATO’s Libya mission.
The proximity of government forces to civilian areas made it hard for NATO to carry out its mandate of protecting civilians, he told reporters in Brussels, adding NATO had still managed to destroy over 30 military targets in the city since April 29.
NATO carried out missile strikes on Tuesday in the Tripoli area on targets that appeared to include Gaddafi’s compound, witnesses said. NATO said later it carried out a strike against a government command and control facility in downtown Tripoli.
Libyan officials said NATO air strikes in the Tripoli area overnight wounded four children and two of them were seriously hurt by flying glass caused by blasts.
Officials showed foreign journalists a hospital in the capital where some windows were shattered, apparently by blast waves from a NATO strike that toppled a nearby telecommunications tower.
The journalists were also taken to a government building housing the high commission for children, which had been completely destroyed. The old colonial building had been damaged before, in what officials said was a NATO bombing on April 30.
“The direction of at least one blast suggests Gaddafi’s compound has been targeted,” said one witness.
No other information was immediately available. The Tripoli blasts occurred against a backdrop of deadlock in an insurgency aiming to end Gaddafi’s four decades in power and a dilemma for Western powers over whether to offer covert aid to the rebels.
The government says most Libyans support Gaddafi. It calls the rebels armed criminals and al Qaeda militants and says NATO’s intervention is an act of colonial aggression by Western powers intent on stealing the country’s oil.
After two months of conflict linked to this year’s uprisings in other Arab countries, rebels hold Benghazi and other towns in the east while the government controls the capital and almost all of the west of the North African state.
The war has killed thousands and caused misery for tens of thousands of migrants forced to flee overland or by boat. Hundreds have drowned on unseaworthy vessels trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Aid agencies say witnesses reported a vessel carrying between 500 and 600 people foundered late last week near Tripoli and many bodies were seen in the water.
“The tragic truth is we will probably never know how many people drowned in this latest tragedy,” said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, from the International Organization for Migration.
Even before that, around 800 people had gone missing since March 25 after trying to escape Libya, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most were from sub-Saharan Africa.