Libya government tour of besieged town reveals struggle

Posted April 09, 2011, at 5:50 p.m.

MISRATA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s government brought foreign journalists to Misrata on Friday to show that its forces hold significant control over the only major city in western Libya still in rebel hands, but the trip suggested that their situation had if anything grown more dire after weeks of laying siege to the enemy’s stronghold.

Reporters were bused to the same intersection, more than a mile from downtown, where government officials took them about 10 days ago. Back then, it was to show the effects of a NATO airstrike. This time, it was simply as far as the tour could go before the sounds of gunfire and shelling forced officials to turn around.

At one point, the journalists took cover amid gunfire. A Libyan soldier, Walid Mohammed Walid, received a head wound in the shooting and was taken to a hospital.

Buildings were heavily pockmarked from battle, as they were previously. But while Gadhafi’s forces at the intersection were seen on open ground on the earlier visit, this time the few soldiers there were hiding out in buildings or on rooftops.

The scene along the road from Tripoli,dotted with burned-out tanks, anti-aircraft guns hidden by vegetation and checkpoints made of tires and sand banks, underscored the devastating struggle over Misrata. It is the most sustained conflict in the Libyan uprising and the focus of growing international efforts to bring aid by sea to besieged residents caught in the crossfire.

Just 100 miles southeast of the capital Tripoli, Misrata is symbolic and strategic for both sides, each of which holds key parts of Libya’s third-largest city.

Rebels, who hold central neighborhoods and the critical port area, want to hang onto an important foothold deep in Gadhafi’s territory.

Government forces surround the city and patrol the main roadways. Their aim is to consolidate control over the west in preparation for a possible push against largely rebel-held eastern Libya.

As a group of international journalists approached Misrata on Friday’s government-controlled visit, smoke could be seen coming out of the city from the distance. In the area where the tour turned back, streets and homes were utterly deserted.

Even as the showdown deepens, NATO has struggled with how to work Misrata into its airstrike missions. The alliance has been cautious about waging bombing runs in the city because of the risk of civilian casualties.

Even the limited look inside Misrata was unusual. Libyan officials have tried to block journalists from entering the city, although a few reporters have entered previously by sea.

It was unclear which side had the upper hand in the latest fighting. But a witness said rebel forces were trying to keep Gadhafi’s troops from taking full control of a route linking central Misrata to its port, a crucial lifeline for ships carrying humanitarian supplies into the battle zone.

The witness’s account could not be independently verified. There also were no credible reports on casualties.

 

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