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Key Libyan city bombarded with snipers, shells and tanks

Civilians in the city of Misrata are scrounging for food and water and living without electricity as airstrikes continue to ravage the area.

A Libyan rebel displays his ammunition before moving closer to the frontline after Moammar Gadhafi's forces fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22, 2011.
A Libyan rebel displays his ammunition before moving closer to the frontline after Moammar Gadhafi's forces fired on them on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Tuesday, March 22, 2011.
Image: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

MUAMMAR GADDAFI’S SNIPERS and tanks are terrorizing civilians in the coastal city of Misrata, a resident said, and the US military warned earlier today it was “considering all options” in response to dire conditions there that have left people cowering in darkened homes and scrounging for food and rainwater.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on military targets. But conditions have deteriorated sharply in Misrata, the last major city in western Libya held by the rebel force trying to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule. Residents of the city 200 kilometers southeast of Tripoli, say shelling and sniper attacks are unrelenting. A doctor said tanks opened fire on a peaceful protest on Monday.

“The number of dead are too many for our hospital to handle,” said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if the city falls to Gaddafi’s troops. As for food, he said, “We share what we find and if we don’t find anything, which happens, we don’t know what to do.”

Neither the rebels nor Gaddafi’s forces are strong enough to hold Misrata or Ajdabiya, a key city in the east that is also a daily battleground. But the airstrikes and missiles that are the weapons of choice for international forces may be of limited use.

“When there’s fighting in urban areas and combatants are mixing and mingling with civilians, the options are vastly reduced,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “I can imagine the pressures and desires to protect civilians in Misrata and Ajdabiya are bumping up against the concerns about causing harms to the civilians you seek to protect.”

It is all but impossible to verify accounts within the two cities, which have limited communications and are now blocked to rights monitors such as the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the force — with more enthusiasm than discipline — has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gaddafi’s air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.

Despite the US fears for Misrata, the Obama administration is eager relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition. With NATO divided, France on Tuesday proposed the creation of a political steering committee to run the operation. If accepted, the committee’s job might be to bring order to what some observers has said seems a chaotic effort by countries with differing objectives.

- AP

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