TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Government forces retreated in Libya’s coastal city of Misrata after two months of siege, but seized a rebel town in the remote Western Mountains, with no sign yet of Muammar Gaddafi being dislodged from power.
“Misrata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi’s forces, some are killed and others are running away,” a rebel spokesmen said by telephone from the coastal city, where hundreds have died in street battles between the rebels and government forces.
One government soldier, Khaled Dorman, among a group of 12 being brought to hospital for treatment in Misrata, told Reuters from the back of a pickup truck: “We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday.”
The apparent rebel victory in Misrata, the only large city in the West where they have consistently held out, is a major development in the uprising that began in February and the government acknowledged Western air strikes had been a factor.
Nevertheless, the overall trend of fighting in Libya is still far from clear in a conflict that has seen seesaw victories for both sides. Al Jazeera television reported that heavy fighting continued on Saturday around a hospital in western Misrata being used as a base by Gaddafi’s forces.
Government forces captured the town of Yafran in Libya’s Western Mountains on Saturday, a rebel spokesman said. Rebels in that region captured a border post two days ago and had begun rushing supplies to towns under attack, saying they were cheered by reports from Misrata.
“Gaddafi brigades seized control of the (Yafran) town center and we are currently in nearby villages,” a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Ezref, told Al Arabiya television.
“They are firing mortars and Grad missiles,” he said, adding that he had counted more than 44 Grad rockets fired in one hour.
Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said NATO airstrikes had hit targets in Sirte, Gharyan, Aziziyah, Tripoli and Hira on Saturday and denied the army had left Misrata.
“The armed forces did not withdraw from Misrata. They stopped operations in Misrata because the tribal leaders in Misrata decided to take action to return life,” he said.
He said 60,000 civilians were ready to fight for the town. The rebels say very few people around Misrata back Gaddafi and have accused him of paying mercenaries to pose as locals.
Western powers have been bombing Libyan positions for more than a month. The United States, Britain and France say they will not stop their air war until Gaddafi leaves office.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi crossed into Tunisia on Saturday and then flew to the capital Tunis, a Tunisian security source said. It was not clear where Obeidi, who held talks in Cyprus earlier this month, would go next. Cypriot officials denied he was heading their way.
At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli on Saturday evening after NATO aircraft flew over the capital, drawing Libyan anti-aircraft fire.
Western militaries appear keen to take some credit for the government retreat in Misrata. Britain said its planes had attacked armored vehicles in the area and NATO said the first U.S. Predator drone to fire over Libya had hit a rocket launcher near the city on Saturday.
President Nicolas Sarkozy told a rebel leader this week that France would intensify its air strikes.
Analysts say the scale of British and French air raids may still be too modest to bring a decisive military result. The new use of U.S. drones would be a psychological boost for rebels but no “magic bullet” to break the stalemate in a war where Western powers are anxious to limit their military involvement.
Shashank Joshi of London’s Royal United Services Institute said the drones’ deployment reflected U.S. reluctance to provide low-flying manned aircraft, such as the A-10 Tankbuster and the AC-130 gunship, which France in particular had pressed for.
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Misrata; Writing by Andrew Roche; Editing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher)
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