TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s troops launched a powerful assault with tanks and rockets Friday on Misrata, the last major rebel city in western Libya, sending residents fleeing to increasingly crowded safe areas of the city that are still out of the Libyan leader’s reach, witnesses said.
Misrata has become emblematic of the limits of NATO’s air campaign, with the alliance’s top military commander saying he needs more precision attack aircraft to avoid civilian casualties in urban combat. President Barack Obama acknowledged in an interview that the 2-month-old civil war has reached a stalemate.
After a weeklong flurry of high-level diplomatic meetings in Europe and the Middle East, rebel leaders complained that the international community is not doing enough to keep Gadhafi’s troops at bay. In the capital of Tripoli, a government official denied Libyan troops are shelling Misrata and said they are only taking defensive actions.
Friday’s fighting in Misrata — even as a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin debated handling of the Libya air campaign — highlight rebel worries that international intervention won’t come fast enough or will be ineffective.
“Time is critical, especially for the people in the west part of the country, especially in Misrata,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels who seized much of eastern Libya from Gadhafi at the start of the war. “Is there something else on the diplomatic ground that they know that we don’t to put more pressure on Gadhafi? The guy is still shelling and killing, and it makes no difference to him.”
Rights groups have warned that the situation in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, is dire after 50 days of siege by Gadhafi’s troops. Hospitals are unable to cope with growing numbers of casualties, including many shrapnel injuries.
Rebels in Misrata alleged that Gadhafi’s forces have been using cluster bombs, which pose particular risk to civilians because they scatter small bomblets over a wide area. New York-based Human Rights Watch reported Friday that such munitions were used, saying its researchers inspected remnants and interviewed witnesses.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied the use of cluster bombs. “Absolutely not,” he said when asked about the allegations. “We can never do this. We challenge them to prove it.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was unaware of the reports about the use of cluster bombs.
“I have to say I am not surprised at anything that Col. Gadhafi and his forces do, but that is worrying information and it is one of the reasons why the fight in Misrata is so difficult,” Clinton said. “It is at close quarters, it is in amongst urban areas and it poses a lot of challenges to both NATO and to the opposition.”
An international aid group evacuated nearly 1,200 migrant workers from Misrata by boat Friday, saying nearly all were weak, were suffering from dehydration and needed medical attention.
The migrants are among 8,300 foreign laborers stranded near Misrata’s port without shelter or adequate food and water, and the boat will quickly make a second run to rescue more, said the International Organization for Migration.
Germay Haslan, an IOM coordinator, said he heard the sound of shelling and mortar fire while the ship was in port.
In Friday’s assault, a helicopter circled over Misrata for several hours, apparently spotting targets for artillery. Pro-Gadhafi forces bombarded the city with fire from tanks, artillery and rockets, a resident said.
“We’ve been hearing explosions all day,” said the resident, who spoke on condition he be identified only by his given name, Abdel-Salam, for fear of retaliation.
Abdel-Salam said the shelling continued until nightfall, portraying the assault as the heaviest since the start of the siege.
“Where is NATO?” asked Abdel-Salam. “Their top mission is to protect civilians, and Misrata is the No. 1 city in Libya that needs protection for the civilians.”
The alliance is struggling to overcome differences, with Britain and France seeking more strikes by other NATO nations, particularly the U.S. Washington says it sees no need to change what it calls a supporting role in the campaign and many other NATO nations have rules preventing them from striking Gadhafi’s forces except in self-defense.
Beyond the political constraints, NATO needs more precision attack aircraft to avoid civilian casualties as Gadhafi’s forces camouflage themselves and hide in populated areas to avoid Western airstrikes, said NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis.
The commander is looking for about eight to 10 additional planes, said U.S. officials on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details.
The international community stepped into the Libyan conflict a month ago, with NATO unleashing airstrikes on Gadhafi-linked military targets. On Friday, airstrikes struck Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte in eastern Libya. Explosions also were heard from what appeared to be NATO strikes against Gadhafi’s forces near the coastal town of Brega.
Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press that a military stalemate exists, but that the U.S. and NATO have averted a “wholesale slaughter” and that Gadhafi is coming under increasing pressure to leave.
Gadhafi is “getting squeezed in all different kinds of ways” and is running out of money and supplies, Obama said. He added that he is confident Gadhafi ultimately will be forced to surrender power and that there is no need for a change in U.S. policy at this time.
There has been mounting international pressure on Gadhafi to step aside after 42 years in power.
Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in a joint newspaper opinion article that while their mandate under a U.N. Security Council resolution does not include removing Gadhafi by force, “it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power.”