MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Time is running out for Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, even as the strongman's forces laying siege to Misrata intensified their assault on the lifeline port.
"The game is over for Kadhafi. He should realise sooner rather than later that there's no future for him or his regime," the NATO secretary-general told CNN's "State of the Union" programme late Sunday.
"We have stopped Kadhafi in his tracks. His time is running out. He's more and more isolated," Rasmussen said.
Given the "wind of change" sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the growing pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Danish former prime minister said he was "very optimistic" that Kadhafi would ultimately lose his decades-old grip on power.
NATO forces have kept up an air bombing campaign against Libyan military targets since March, but have failed so far to prevent Kadhafi from killing scores of his own people in rebel-held towns and cities -- the stated goal of a UN resolution authorising the allied mission.
Fighting has been raging in Misrata, a make-or-break city in the Libyan conflict lying about 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of the capital which has been besieged by Kadhafi's forces for weeks.
A thick plume of smoke spread on Sunday over the city, the main source of supplies to rebels fighting to oust the veteran strongman in western Libya, from blazing fuel depots bombed a day earlier. Long queues formed at fuel stations amid fears of shortages.
Forces loyal to Kadhafi "destroyed the only tanks that were full," said Ahmad Monthasser, a rebel from Misrata.
Rebels warned that residents of Misrata could run out of food and water within a month if they are not provided with "game-changing" weapons to defeat Kadhafi's forces.
Because of shelling of the city's port over the past two weeks, only one aid ship a week is now reaching Misrata, which is circled by the Libyan strongman's troops, said a spokesman in the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi.
Misrata is seen as key to the Libyan conflict, which broke out in mid-February after Kadhafi's security forces waged a bloody crackdown on protests inspired by regime-changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
NATO said Monday that in latest sorties its warplanes hit five rocket launchers, one self-propelled artillery piece, one truck-mounted gun and three buildings "hosting active shooters" in the vicinity of Misrata.
It also hit 26 ammunition storages and 16 "vehicle storages" near Hun, eight military vehicles near Brega, two military operational facilities near Tripoli and four ammunition dumps near Zintan.
Italian coast guards and local fisherman, meanwhile, saved all 528 refugees on a boat from Libya after their vessel hit rocks off the island of Lampedusa in an operation a rescuer described as a "miracle." Among the refugees who had thrown themselves into the water at night were 24 pregnant women.
But the survivors said they saw another boat laden with fellow refugees capsize just off Libyan shores and "many bodies" were in the water, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
"It was terrible. There were a lot of corpses," said a refugee, whose name was not quoted in the report, which said "dozens of dozens" of people had likely died.
On Friday, Kadhafi's forces dropped mines into Misrata's harbour using small helicopters bearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the rebels said.
Amnesty International's senior adviser Donatella Rovera lashed out at the Kadhafi regime, saying the mines do not "distinguish between civilian and military vehicles."
"Such systematic targeting of Misrata's only conduit for humanitarian supplies and for the evacuation of critically ill and wounded patients is nothing short of collective punishment against the city's population," she said.
Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the opposition National Transitional Council pointed to Kadhafi's growing desperation behind such "firepower on the people" following economic and political pressure from world powers.
World powers have promised $250 million (175 million euros) in humanitarian aid to the rebels and said the Kadhafi regime's frozen overseas assets, estimated at $60 billion, would be used later to assist the Libyan opposition.
In Banjul, the Gambian high court on Monday granted an application allowing the government to seize millions of dollars worth of Libyan assets in the tiny west African country.
While the assets were not named in court, the Libya African Investment Company company owns a multi-million dollar five-star hotel, the Jerma Beach, the Laico Atlantic Hotel in the capital, Banjul, said to be worth $18 million (12 million euros), and Dream Park, a children's amusement park.