Libyan wounded describe Misrata hell
Sfax - Gaddafi forces using tanks and snipers are carrying out a "massacre" in Misrata with corpses on the streets and hospitals full of the wounded, evacuees said, with one describing the besieged city as "hell".
Misrata, Libya's third city, rose up with other towns against Muammar Gaddafi's rule in mid-February, and it is now under attack by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
"You have to visit Misrata to see the massacre by Gaddafi," said Omar Boubaker, a 40-year-old engineer with a bullet wound to the leg, brought to the Tunisian port of Sfax by a French aid group. "Corpses are in the street. Hospitals are overflowing."
Stalemate on the front line of fighting in eastern Libya, defections from Gaddafi's inner circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting or facing food and fuel shortages prompted a flurry of diplomatic contacts to find a solution to the civil war.
But the evacuees from Misrata had more immediate concerns.
"I could live or die but I am thinking of my family and friends who are stranded in the hell of Misrata," said tearful evacuee Abdullah Lacheeb, who had serious injuries to his pelvis and stomach and a bullet wound in his leg.
"Imagine, they use tanks against civilians. He [Gaddafi] is prepared to kill everyone there... I am thinking of my family."
Swathed in bandages, evacuees gave some of the most detailed accounts yet of conditions in Misrata, the last major rebel-held city in western Libya which recalled sieges of town and cities in the Bosnian conflict.
Air strikes fail
UN-mandated air strikes to protect civilians have so far failed to halt attacks by the Libyan army, which residents said stationed snipers on rooftops and fired mortars and artillery at populated areas of the city with devastating effect.
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians in Misrata, saying they are fighting armed gangs linked to al-Qaeda. Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified as Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from there.
A rebel spokesperson said the city was shelled on Monday.
"The shelling started in the early hours of the morning and it's continuing, using mortars and artillery. This is pure terrorism. The shelling is targeting residential areas," the spokesperson, called Gemal, told Reuters by telephone, adding:
"We know there are casualties but I don't know how many."
A Turkish ship that sailed into Misrata to rescue 250 wounded was protected by Turkish war planes and warships and had to leave in a hurry after thousands pressed forward on the dock, pleading to be evacuated.
Another ship operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres docked in Sfax in Tunisia with 71 wounded from Misrata. Many had bullet wounds and broken limbs. One person's face was totally disfigured by burns.
Fears of a massacre in Misrata are helping to propel efforts this week to try and secure a ceasefire in the North African oil-producing desert state. Sfax echoed to the sound of sirens as a stream of ambulances ferried the wounded to hospital.
Gaddafi is mad
"We cannot do anything against this massacre any more. We ask the Americans and the Europeans to put people on the ground and help us end these crimes," said another injured man, Imed.
"We need you on the ground to protect us... Gaddafi is mad."
A Libyan envoy was in Europe on Monday seeking to end the civil war that has become locked in a battlefield stalemate between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Libya wanted a negotiated political settlement, Greek officials said, because a military solution to the conflict between rag-tag rebels backed by Western air power and Gaddafi's better armed troops now looked impossible.
"The Libyan envoy wanted to convey that Libya has the intention to negotiate," a Greek official said after the visit by Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi. "We don't think that there can be a military solution to this crisis."
Obeidi is expected in Turkey on Monday and Malta on Tuesday.
Beyond a willingness to talk, there was no sign of what Libya might offer to end the war that is bogged down on a front line around the eastern oil town of Brega, while civilians are bombarded by Gaddafi forces in western rebel holdouts.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had been talking by telephone with officials in Tripoli as well as the leaders of Qatar, Turkey and Britain over the past two days. Greece has enjoyed good relations with Gaddafi for a number of years.
Gaddafi must quit
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who had spoken to Greek officials, dismissed the Libyan envoy's message saying a divided Libya was not acceptable and Gaddafi must quit.
After a meeting with Ali Essawi, a member of the Libyan rebel council looking after foreign affairs, Frattini said Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, backed the rebels.
"We have decided to recognise the council as the only political, legitimate interlocutor to represent Libya," he said.
"A solution for the future of Libya has a pre-condition - that Gaddafi's regime leaves and is out and that Gaddafi himself and his family leave the country," he said, adding an interim government headed by one of Gaddafi's sons was "not an option".
One diplomat cautioned, however, that any diplomatic compromise - for example one in which Gaddafi handed over power to one of his sons - could lead to the partition of Libya.
"Various scenarios are being discussed," said the diplomat. "Everyone wants a quick solution."
If there were eventually to be a ceasefire leading to the partition of Libya, control of revenues from the oil ports, including Brega and Ras Lanuf to the west, would be crucial.
Gaddafi believes the uprising is fuelled by Islamist radicals and Western nations who want to control Libya's oil. The rebels, whose stronghold is in the eastern city of Benghazi, want nothing less than the removal of Gaddafi and his circle.
The UN-mandated military intervention, in which war planes have attacked Gaddafi's armour, radars and air defences, began on March 19 and was intended to protect civilians caught up in fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels.
Neither the Gaddafi troops nor the mostly disorganised rebel force have been able to gain the upper hand on the front line, despite the Western air power in effect aiding the insurgents.
After chasing each other up and down the coast road linking the oil ports of eastern Libya with Gaddafi's tribal heartland further west, the two sides are stuck around Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25km.
Rebels pushed the army out of much of Brega and towards the outskirts of the sprawling oil town on Monday in a slow advance west, but were still facing bombardment with each step.
Showing signs of greater organisation than in past weeks, rebels moved more cautiously and held ground more stubbornly than before despite facing Gaddafi's better-equipped forces.
"Gaddafi's forces are waiting at the western gate exactly. Any advance by the rebels, they fire at with mortars," said rebel fighter Youssef Shawadi, a few kilometres from the gate.
Signs of fighting were evident from dozens of burned out pick-ups and cars lying by the road through Brega.
Near the university - a focus of five days of clashes - thuds and blasts could be heard from around the western gate. Black smoke rose as the two sides fired rockets at each other.
The rebels, who need modern weapons and better training if they are to match Gaddafi's forces, said the army had laid mines and booby-traps as they withdrew west from the university.
"Gaddafi wants the rebels on the road. If they keep to the road he can hit them with rockets and Grad [missiles]," said rebel army soldier Hassan el-Fetouri.