TRIPOLI, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi’s troops launched a powerful assault with tanks and rockets Friday on Misrata, the last major rebel city in western Libya, sending residents fleeing to increasingly crowded safe areas of the city that are still out of the Libyan leader’s reach, witnesses said.
Misrata has become emblematic of the limits of NATO’s air campaign, with the alliance’s top military commander saying he needs more precision attack aircraft to avoid civilian casualties in urban combat. President Barack Obama acknowledged in an interview that the 2-month-old civil war has reached a stalemate.
After a weeklong flurry of high-level diplomatic meetings in Europe and the Middle East, rebel leaders complained that the international community is not doing enough to keep Gadhafi’s troops at bay. In the capital of Tripoli, a government official denied Libyan troops are shelling Misrata and said they are only taking defensive actions.
Friday’s fighting in Misrata – even as a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Berlin debated handling of the Libya air campaign – highlighted rebel worries that international intervention won’t come fast enough or will be ineffective.
“Time is critical, especially for the people in the west part of the country, especially in Misrata,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels who seized much of eastern Libya from Gadhafi at the start of the war. “Is there something else on the diplomatic ground that they know that we don’t to put more pressure on Gadhafi? The guy is still shelling and killing and it makes no difference to him.”
Rights groups have warned that the situation in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, is dire after 50 days of siege by Gadhafi’s troops. Hospitals are unable to cope with growing numbers of casualties, including many shrapnel injuries.
Rebels in Misrata alleged that Gadhafi’s forces have been using cluster bombs, which pose particular risk to civilians because they scatter small bomblets over a wide area. New York-based Human Rights Watch reported Friday that such munitions were used, saying its researchers inspected remnants and interviewed witnesses.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied the use of cluster bombs. “Absolutely not,” he said when asked about the allegations. “We can never do this. We challenge them to prove it.”
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