Blasts rock Misrata, as Libya rebels push in east

MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Loud explosions Saturday rocked the besieged rebel-held western Libyan city of Misrata, where the death toll mounted, as a rights watchdog said Moamer Kadhafi's forces were using cluster bombs.

In the east, heavy fighting was reported as rebel fighters, bolstered by NATO air strikes, pushed on from the crossroads town of Ajdabiya towards the strategic oil town of Brega.

A Libyan holds the country's old flag, which has been adopted by the rebels, and a banner which reads in French: "No Qaeda, No Hezbollah, Long live Libya" during the Friday noon prayer in Benghazi.

And even further west, NATO air strikes targeted Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte, state news agency JANA reported, without giving details.

NATO warplanes had already struck Sirte on Friday, JANA reported at the time.

The blasts in Misrata were accompanied by bursts of gunfire heard coming from the city centre, after NATO flyovers and possible air raids were followed by a lull in shelling and shooting, an AFP correspondent said.

Officials at Misrata's main Hikma hospital said overnight it had received five dead bodies and 31 wounded.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said its researchers reported the use of internationally banned cluster munitions against Misrata, the rebels' last major bastion in western Libya.

Insurgents said Kadhafi loyalists were using cluster bombs, which explode in the air and scatter deadly, armour-piercing submunitions over a wide area.

"Last night it was like rain," said Hazam Abu Zaid, a local resident who has taken up arms to defend his neighbourhood, describing the cluster bombings.

The use of the munitions was first reported by The New York Times. A reporting team for the daily photographed MAT-120 mortar rounds which it said were produced in Spain.

"It's appalling that Libya is using this weapon, especially in a residential area," said Steve Goose, HRW's arms division director.

"They pose a huge risk to civilians, both during attacks because of their indiscriminate nature and afterwards because of the still-dangerous unexploded duds scattered about," he said.

A spokesman for the Libyan regime denied the accusations.

"Absolutely no. We can't do this. Morally, legally we can't do this," Mussa Ibrahim told journalists. "We never do it. We challenge them to prove it."

In Paris, aid organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had evacuated 99 people, including 64 war-wounded, by boat from Misrata on Friday to Tunisia.

Speaking of the dire conditions in the city, under siege for weeks, MSF Doctor Morten Rostrup said in a statement that "health structures have been struggling to cope with the influx of patients".

"With the latest heavy bombardments in Mistrata, the situation is worsening, as hospitals have to discharge patients before their treatment is completed in order to treat the new wounded from fighting. Many injured cannot even access medical facilities without further risking their life."

Rostrup also said an MSF visiting a nearby migrant camp found that "these people live in extremely difficult conditions, lacking proper shelter and food. They are desperate to go back to their home countries."

Libya said a Red Cross team had arrived in Misrata to assess the situation.

"The Libyan army took them to a specific place into the city and the Red Cross went to the other side (the one controlled by the opposition)," government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli.

Tens of thousands of migrants have already fled Libya since the rebellion broke out in mid-February.

Meanwhile, an AFP reporter stopped at a rebel checkpoint west of Ajdabiya heard explosions from several shells in the distance as rebels pushed forward to confront government forces hit by NATO air strikes.

The insurgents' goal is to retake Brega about 80 kilometres (50 miles) away. Some reports said they were already on the outskirts of the oil town.

On Saturday afternoon, an AFP correspondent reported heavy fighting in the area, including rocket, mortar and small arms fire.

Meanwhile, doctors in Ajdabiya said one person was killed and seven wounded by gunfire Friday along the road to Brega. Their identity was not known.

In the far west of the country, witnesses on Friday reported NATO air strikes on Kadhafi armour in the Zintan region, amid clashes with rebels who hold several areas and rebel reports Kadhafi troops were trying to cut the road to nearby Yafran.

On the diplomatic front, the leaders of Britain, France and the United States said on Friday that a Libyan future including Kadhafi is "unthinkable," while Russia charged that NATO was exceeding its UN mandate in Libya.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said the United States, Britain and France were thinking beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973 -- which authorises action to protect Libyan civilians -- and now seek regime change.

He admitted that the statement by the three leaders went beyond the terms of the current UN mandate.

"But I think that when three great powers say the same thing, it's important for the United Nations, and perhaps one day the Security Council will make another resolution," he added.

In Berlin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an immediate ceasefire and for the warring parties to be brought to the negotiating table.

UN Resolution 1973 calls for a ceasefire, but Kadhafi has relentlessly pursued his campaign to retake territory lost to the rebels.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied the air strikes were beyond the scope of the UN resolution.

"I have to stress that in the conduct of that operation, we do not go beyond the text or the spirit" of the resolution, he said.

The Washington Post reported late Friday that NATO is running short of precision bombs and other munitions in Libya, citing unnamed senior NATO and US officials. The scope of the problem was not mentioned.

Meanwhile, the European Union and NATO deepened their coordination for a potential EU military mission to deliver urgent humanitarian aid to Misrata, diplomats said.

The International Organisation for Migration said about 1,200 migrants have been evacuated from Misrata to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Most were Bangladeshis and Egyptians.

Any EU mission would have to be coordinated with NATO because the 28-nation alliance has several warships and units of warplanes in the Mediterranean.

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