MISRATA, Libya – Rebel fighters drove Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalist forces from all but one base in Misrata on Saturday and appeared to be on the verge of expelling all government forces from the besieged port city.
After furious street fighting, Gadhafi’s troops abandoned a college and vegetable market that had been hubs for shelling the city. At least 24 rebel fighters were killed and an additional 70 wounded, doctors at Misrata’s Hikma hospital said.
But even if rebels push all of Gadhafi’s fighters from the city, Misrata remains surrounded by the Libyan leader’s security units. The government could bomb the city from its gates if NATO is not effective in cutting off Gadhafi’s supply lines.
To evade NATO attacks, Gadhafi has used civilian cars to transport troops and supplies over open roads, but rebels believe that NATO bombing runs have weakened Gadhafi’s forces outside the city.
The battles on Saturday marked the culmination of the rebel fighters’ strategy over the last month. They had sealed off Tripoli Street, the main commercial artery in Misrata, with sand-filled trucks to isolate Gadhafi’s fighters and starve them of supplies.
The strategy produced dividends as fighters first abandoned Tripoli Street’s Tamim Life Insurance building Thursday. The Tamim building had been used to shower rockets, mortar rounds, gunfire and cluster bombs on central Misrata.
The port city rose up against Gadhafi as part of a popular revolt in mid-February and has become a symbol of the struggle against the Libyan leader.
The Libyan deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said late Friday that NATO airstrikes had taken their toll on Gadhafi’s forces. His comments came after the United States announced the start of Predator drone operations to help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization effort.
Kaim said the government now intends to let local tribesmen deal with Misrata.