UN granted 'safe passage' into Misrata

2011-04-19 11:39

Misrata - Libya's government has granted "safe passage" for the United Nations teams in Misrata, the UN said, even as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pounded the besieged rebel city with rockets and shells.

The UN said it wanted to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground in Misrata, which loyalist troops have being trying to overrun for the past six weeks in heavy fighting which a doctor said had killed more than 1 000 people, mostly civilians.

With thousands clamouring to escape the port city, about 215km east of Tripoli, Britain said it will charter ships to pick up 5 000 migrant workers after a ferry rescued nearly 1 000 on Monday.

Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said the safe passage was part of an accord on humanitarian access to the capital and other Libyan cities secured in Tripoli on Sunday by UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

The Gaddafi government also agreed to let a UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs mission into Misrata, said UN humanitarian spokesperson Stephanie Bunker.

"We want to assess the situation and determine the needs with our own eyes," Bunker told AFP.

But the head of the Red Crescent in Misrata was sceptical the regime would deliver on its promise, as snipers, cluster bombs and intense shelling spread panic in the city.

Large blasts

"Gaddafi says a lot of nonsense," Omar Abu Zaid told AFP. "We would like anything to help the people of Misrata. But we don't trust Gaddafi."

Two large blasts were heard late on Monday, thought to have been from rockets targeting the port area where plumes of smoke billowed into the night sky.

Fighting also raged into night in Zawiya, around 15km southwest of Misrata's city centre, with heavy incoming fire pounding the residential district, an AFP reporter said.

On Tuesday morning, outgoing rocket fire was heard as the rebels appeared to be targeting the heavy armour of the government troops, as Nato warplanes flew overhead.

Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil was meanwhile set to meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday, on a visit to Libya's former colonial ruler after it recognised the opposition to Gaddafi.

Jalil, a former justice minister who was critical of abuses under Gaddafi, was expected in Rome after a visit to Qatar on his first foreign tour in his new role.

In Geneva, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said a chartered ferry had evacuated 971 stranded people on Monday, mostly Ghanaians.

Using black people

An AFP reporter in Benghazi said the ship reached the rebel stronghold in the east late on Monday. Some 30 wounded on board were taken to hospital in the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also said it helped 618 migrants leave Misrata on Monday.

Thousands of Africans worked in Misrata, Libya's third city, and many had been stranded for weeks without proper shelter or sanitation.

"The rebels say that Gaddafi is using black people to fight against them so won't allow us to leave the city," said evacuee Massud Idris, 29, from Ghana, in Benghazi.

"If we leave the city to Tripoli, they thought Gaddafi will use us against them. So we were there for about two months" near Misrata's port, he said.

The administrator of the main hospital in Misrata, Dr Khaled Abu Falgha, said that in all, 1 000 people are estimated to have been killed in the fighting, while another 3 000 people have been wounded.

Special forces

"Eighty percent of the deaths are civilians," he said.

Medics at the hospital said 10 people were killed and 54 people were wounded on Monday.

Human Rights Watch quoted doctors as saying more than 267 bodies had been taken to Misrata morgues as of April 15, mostly civilians, but that the actual toll was higher because some dead had not been retrieved.

Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, denied civilians were being targeted.

"We didn't commit any crime against our people," he said in Sunday's Washington Post.

"I am not going to accept it, that the Libyan army killed civilians. This didn't happen. It will never happen."

In Paris, the influential chairperson of parliament's foreign affairs committee urged France to send special forces to Libya to guide in air strikes.

Pounding the region

Axel Poniatowski warned that the Nato campaign could become bogged down because, from the air, pilots find it hard to differentiate between Gaddafi forces and the rebels, who use similar weapons and pick-ups.

"Without information from the ground, coalition planes are flying blind and increasing the risk of friendly fire incidents," he said.

Nato warplanes have accidentally bombed rebel convoys at least twice.

Renewed fighting was reported on Monday in Nalut near the border with Tunisia, and in the strategic rebel-held eastern crossroads town of Ajdabiya, and NATO air strikes on the town of Al-Aziziyah, south of Tripoli.

More than 100 people were killed in 24 hours in the rebel-held Al-Jabal Al-Gharbi district west of Tripoli after it was bombarded by Gaddafi forces, residents said.

"Gaddafi battalions have not stopped pounding the region, particularly Yafran and Nalut, with Grad rockets," one Yafran resident said. "There have been 110 dead [since Sunday], civilians and rebels, in both cities."