MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Salvos of Grad rockets exploded and automatic weapons were fired Sunday on Misrata in an apparent contradiction of the Libyan regime's claims that troops halted operations in the besieged city.
AFP - A picture taken during a guided government tour shows loyalists to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi rallying in his support outside Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said early Sunday the army had suspended operations against rebels in Misrata, but not left the city, to enable local tribes to find a peaceful solution.
"The armed forces have not withdrawn from Misrata. They have simply suspended their operations," Kaim told a news conference in the capital.
"The tribes are determined to solve the problem within 48 hours... We believe that this battle will be settled peacefully and not militarily."
But bursts of continual automatic weapons fire could be heard as Grad rockets exploded on the city, the scene of deadly urban guerrilla fighting for weeks between rebels and forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
Kaim had previously announced that the army would withdraw from Misrata and leave local tribes to resolve the conflict in the city, either by talks or through force.
On Saturday, Libya's third city suffered the worst toll in 65 days of fighting, with 28 dead and 100 wounded compared with a daily average of 11 killed, according to Doctor Khalid Abu Falra at Misrata's main private clinic.
NATO planes staged raids on civil and military sites in the Libyan capital Tripoli and other cities, JANA news agency said, without confirming the number of people killed and wounded. Earlier air raids conducted by the Western alliance struck near a compound in Tripoli where Kadhafi resides.
"A military source said civil and military sites were targeted by the colonialist aggressor," said JANA, specifying that the strikes had also covered Al-Khums, Gharian, El Assa and Sirte, the birthplace of strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
Three new explosions rocked the Libyan capital in the late evening as NATO warplanes overflew Tripoli, AFP journalists said, after several earlier blasts in the city centre and outlying quarters.
Heavy anti-aircraft and automatic arms fire were also heard in many areas of the city.
Two of the earlier explosions came from downtown Tripoli, while the rest came from areas further out, but the targeted sites could not immediately be determined.
A French journalist was shot in the neck in the eastern rebel-held city, medical sources said, noting the victim underwent an operation and was now out of danger. Friends refused to identify the journalist, but said he was a blogger who worked for "alternative media."
The United States earlier carried out its first Predator drone strike in Libya, which NATO said had destroyed one of the regime's multiple rocket launchers (MRL) allegedly used to target civilians in the rebel-held city of Misrata besieged by regime troops.
Kadhafi's regime has accused the United States of "new crimes against humanity" for deploying the low-flying, unmanned aircraft.
Falra, the doctor, said the casualty toll was double that of a "normal" day of fighting in Libya's third city between rebels and Kadhafi's forces, and was more than the hospital could take.
"We're overwhelmed, overwhelmed. We lack everything: personnel, equipment and medicines," he said.
Ambulances pulled up outside the hospital every five to 10 minutes, also bringing in wounded loyalists.
"We can't go on at this rate. We are losing people who in normal times we would be able to treat," said exhausted surgeon Mahmud Mohammed, as explosions and gunfire echoed from the streets.
The impact of pro-Kadhafi forces entering the fray remained unclear as militia "volunteers" were already believed to be among regime forces in Misrata.
Any greater influx of such militiamen would complicate NATO efforts to distinguish between rebels and Kadhafi loyalists to minimize civilian casualties.
Hamed al-Hasi, a colonel coordinating rebel fighters at the western gate of the crossroads town of Ajdabiya in the east, said the decision would signal the insurgents were beginning to win the battle for Misrata.
"This is the first nail in the coffin of Kadhafi. This means the Libyan army is no longer capable," he said.
Omar Rajab, a 29-year-old rebel, said tribal fighters in plain clothes had joined the loyalist forces in Misrata, saying they "come from tribes in the south."
NATO said it had kept a "high operational tempo" of over 3,000 sorties, nearly half of them strikes, since the transatlantic military alliance assumed full control of the mission late last month.
"We have struck a broad range of targets across the country -- tanks and rocket launchers, armoured vehicles and ammunition stores, command and control sites," it added in a statement.
An aid ship delivered 160 tonnes of food and medicine to the port city before a planned evacuation of around 1,000 stranded refugees.
Hundreds of Libyan families lined up along the harbour front in hope of getting on board the vessel chartered by the International Organisation for Migration, which has already transported 3,100 refugees from 21 countries out of the besieged city.
But Dakir Hussam, a Syrian electrician, expressed his delight at managing to get a place on the Red Star One.
"Kadhafi's men shoot at anything that moves in the city, but they are also suffering a lot," he said, referring to the burial he saw of up to a dozen loyalist fighters this week.
The UN refugee agency says about 15,000 people have fled fighting in western Libya into Tunisia in the past two weeks and a much larger exodus was feared.
Three people who escaped the violence in Libya were killed and 72 hurt when their truck overturned in northern Niger, that country's state radio reported.
Anti-aircraft fire rang out and ambulance sirens wailed in the capital on Friday as NATO air strikes hit a patch of bare ground looking like a bunker opposite Kadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya residence in the centre of the capital.
The US military's top officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, meanwhile said allied air strikes had already destroyed 30 to 40 percent of Kadhafi's forces, sending the conflict toward a stalemate as the Red Cross warned the situation in Misrata could "rapidly deteriorate further."
Massive Libyan protests in February -- inspired by the revolts that toppled long-time autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia -- escalated into war when Kadhafi's troops fired on demonstrators and protesters seized several eastern towns.
The battle lines have been more or less static in recent weeks, however, as NATO air strikes have helped block Kadhafi's eastward advance but failed to give the poorly organised and outgunned rebels a decisive victory.