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Libyan Rebels Say Conditions Grim In Misurata

African and Egyptian refugees waited at Misurata's port along with thousands of others who have been stranded while trying to flee the violence in Libya.
African and Egyptian refugees waited at Misurata's port along with thousands of others who have been stranded while trying to flee the violence in Libya.

Libyan rebels said forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi unleashed another fierce bombardment on the western city of Misurata on Friday.

Two rebels managed to escape by boat to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and warned that conditions in Misurata have become grim.

One of the men, Dr. Suleiman Fortia, told NPR that Gadhafi's troops are using tanks, mortar rounds and other weapons to regularly pound the rebels' last western enclave. He said government snipers were positioned along a main thoroughfare and that loyalist troops controlled access to the city.

"We have every day about 30 to 35 casualties, dead, daily," he said. "And most of them are civilians — women and children, old people, sitting in their houses — and tanks have been shooting them in their houses."

Fortia said there is extremely limited water and electricity in the city, as well as a shortage of baby food and formula and some medical supplies.

U.N. special envoy Abdelilah al-Khatib, who visited Benghazi on Friday, said the United Nations is increasingly worried about worsening conditions in Misurata and urged the regime to allow unfettered humanitarian access there.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders released a statement Friday expressing concern about "several worrying reports" that Misurata's hospitals had been closed for several days because of heavy shelling. The Geneva-based organization said the wounded were being referred to two clinics in the city that were still functioning but reportedly overflowing with seriously wounded patients.

"Despite several appeals and ongoing negotiations with the authorities, [Doctors Without Borders] has been denied access to the western part of Libya on the grounds that there are no medical needs," said Laurent Ligozat, director of operations. "However, the situation in Misurata is reported to be critical, while medical facilities in other cities are also said to be overstretched."

Rebel fighters also were reportedly locked in combat with government troops near the city of Brega, but foreign journalists were being held back by rebels at the city of Ajdabiya, 50 miles to the east, and were not allowed to travel to the front line.

Gadhafi's forces have forced a rebel retreat for much of the past week, pushing the opposition back about 100 miles along the coast and retaking the city of Brega and other key towns.

Rebels Take Heart In Defections

Even as they try to regroup, the rebels said they were undaunted, taking heart from the news that high-level members of Gadhafi's regime had defected.

"We believe that the regime is crumbling from within," opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in Benghazi, comparing Gadhafi to a wounded animal.

"An injured wolf is much more dangerous than a healthy wolf. But we hope the defections continue, and I think he'll find himself with no one around him," Gheriani said.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa — a former intelligence chief and a longtime confidant of Gadhafi — defected to Britain this week and was voluntarily talking with authorities, U.K. officials said.

Hours after the news of Koussa's departure broke, former Foreign Minister Ali Abdessalam Treki announced on several opposition websites that he was leaving his post as Libya's representative to the U.N. and General Assembly president.

The departures led U.S. and British officials to speculate that the regime is crumbling from the inside and forced Libya's chief of intelligence to knock down rumors that he, too, had abandoned Gadhafi.

"I am in Libya and will remain here steadfast in the same camp of the revolution despite everything," Bouzeid Dorda said in a phone interview with state TV. "I never thought to cross the borders or violate commitment to the people, the revolution and the leader."

Ibrahim Dabbashi, the deputy ambassador in Libya's U.N. mission, which now backs the opposition, said many high-level Libyan officials were trying to defect but cannot leave because of tight security.

"I talked to many people — and this is not a happy piece of news — but people are saying, 'So what? If someone wants to step down, that's his decision,' " Dabbashi said.

British media reported Friday that U.K. authorities have held talks over the past several days with a senior aide to one of Gadhafi's sons.

The Guardian newspaper, along with the BBC and other news outlets, said Mohammed Ismail, an aide to Gadhafi's son Seif, arrived in London in recent days. It quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying that two of Gadhafi's sons are anxious to talk about an exit strategy.

The British Foreign Office has not confirmed or denied meeting Ismail, who is now reportedly back in Libya. But U.K. officials said the message in all of their contacts with Libyan officials is the same: Gadhafi has to go.

In a defiant statement released Thursday, the Libyan leader said he is not the one who should go. Gadhafi said the Western leaders who have decimated his military with airstrikes should resign immediately.

He also accused the leaders of coalition nations of being power-hungry.

"The solution for this problem is that they resign immediately and their peoples find alternatives to them," the Libya state news agency quoted him as saying.

Cease-Fire Offer

A rebel leader in the rebels' de facto capital of Benghazi said the opposition would consider a cease-fire deal, but only if Gadhafi steps down.

Speaking at a joint news conference with a U.N. envoy, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said the opposition would accede to a U.N. call for a cease-fire if Gadhafi pulls his forces from all cities and allows peaceful protests.

But Abdul-Jalil, standing beside U.N. envoy Abdelilah al-Khatib, also reiterated that the rebels' "main demand is getting rid of Gadhafi and his sons from Libya" — a condition that Gadhafi has repeatedly rejected.

"We will not go back on this demand," Jalil said. "We stand our ground on the conditions of today's cease-fire, and this is only to stop the bloodshed of civilians and answer the demands of the United Nations."

With reporting from NPR's Eric Westervelt in Benghazi and Philip Reeves and freelancer Larry Miller in London. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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