Aid ship scrambles out of Misrata

2011-05-04 22:38

Geneva - A ship scrambled out of the besieged Libyan port of Misrata on Wednesday carrying 800 migrants and civilian casualties during heavy shelling on the town, the International Organisation for Migration said.

The ship with limited capacity was forced to leave abruptly, pulling up the ramp to leave behind hundreds of Libyan civilians who also rushed to board in desperation to leave the embattled town, the IOM said in a statement.

"We did our best and took everyone we could in a very short time, including Libyan women and children whose relatives had been wounded," said IOM team leader Othman Belbeisi.

The IOM was hoping the chartered ship, which ferried 180 tons of aid supplies into Misrata earlier in the day, would be able to pick up about 1 000 foreign migrants still stranded there and 40 wounded civilians.

But the boarding was delayed after the migrants waiting in the port area were forced to flee the fighting, eventually leading to a final one hour rush before the Red Star sailed for Benghazi.

The vessel carried about 800 people, mainly migrants as well as 50 wounded civilians, doctors and a group of 20 journalists, the IOM said.

Agency staff in Geneva said they could clearly hear the sound of gunfire while they were in touch by satellite phone with their colleagues at the port during "heavy shelling".

A rebel spokesperson told AFP in Benghazi that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi's forces killed five people on Wednesday when they shelled the strategic port.

Aid ship blocked

Rebel-held Misrata has been surrounded by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces for weeks with intense fighting for control, while Nato mine sweepers have been scouring the sea nearby.

The aid ship, a lifeline for the city with land access cut, had been blocked about 16 nautical miles (29.6km) offshore since Saturday, IOM spokesperson Jean-Philippe Chauzy said, after anti-ship mines were laid by Libyan government forces.

In a further development the United States on Wednesday called on Libya to stop attacking the port of Misrata and to allow international organisations to send in aid and evacuate civilians.

"We urge the (Muammar) Gaddafi regime to cease hostilities in Misrata port," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesperson.

He also called on the regime "to allow the International Organization for Migration and other organisations to provide much needed relief and evacuation services to civilians caught up in the Libyan conflict."