Libyan forces, fighters clash in rebel-held city


Associated Press

MISRATA, Libya

Anti-government fighters battled forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in fierce clashes Friday in the only major rebel-held city in western Libya as international relief efforts were stepped up for civilians caught in the crossfire.

Heavy shelling was heard at nightfall outside the city, where some neighborhoods have been nearly abandoned after residents fled to safer areas during weeks of fighting. Nearly all buildings were pockmarked from gunfire.

It was unclear which side had the upper hand. But a witness said rebel forces were trying to keep Gadhafi’s troops from taking full control of a route linking central Misrata to its port, a critical lifeline for ships carrying humanitarian supplies into the battle zone just 100 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, meanwhile, angry crowds fired into the air and chanted against Gadhafi’s regime as militiamen killed in an accidental NATO airstrike were carried for burial.

“The martyrs’ blood is not shed in vain!” cried some of the thousands of people gathered in central Benghazi to pray and mourn some of the dead from the attack on rebel tanks and vehicles.

The main clashes appeared in Misrata, where the outcome is symbolically significant for both sides. Rebels want to retain an important foothold in Gadhafi’s territory, and his government seeks to consolidate its control over the west with NATO airstrikes bearing down.

But NATO has been cautious about waging bombing runs in Misrata because the fighting is mostly within civilian areas. Growing indications of a drawn-out conflict in an OPEC nation pushed oil prices to levels not seen in more than two years ago.

The witness’ account could not be independently verified. There also were no credible reports on casualties.

Government forces have blocked journalists from doing independent reporting in Misrata, but some reporters have managed to enter by sea in past weeks. The Associated Press was among a group of journalists taken to Misrata on Friday by government minders.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency said snipers have targeted children in Misrata. UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told reporters that the agency has received “reliable and consistent reports of children being among the people targeted by snipers in Misrata.”

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