Victory for rebel forces in Misrata
Stalemate shattered as Gaddafi's troops withdraw from major city
LIBYAN rebel fighters in the besieged city of Misrata were claiming victory last night after Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime finally pulled back its forces after almost two months of fighting.
Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim said that it was a tactical withdrawal, leaving the city to the local pro-government tribes who have grown impatient with the prolonged stalemate.
But the claim was dismissed by the rebels, who questioned how much support there really was for Gaddafi among the tribes in the area.
Nato, meanwhile, confirmed that US unmanned Predator drones had carried out their first airstrikes since their use for mounting attacks was approved on Thursday by President Barack Obama, although no details of the action were being released. The apparent lifting of the siege of Misrata came as a huge boost to the rebels, who have suffered hundreds of casualties in the regime's onslaught on their last enclave in the west of the country.
"We were told to withdraw yesterday," one government soldier, Khaled Dorman, told Reuters from the back of a pickup truck.
He was among 12 wounded soldiers brought to a hospital for treatment in Misrata, 200km east of Tripoli. Blasts and machinegun fire could be heard in the distance.
Rebel spokesman Gemal Salem said Gaddafi's forces had left the city but remained outside and would still be in a position to bombard it.
"Misrata is free, the rebels have won. Of Gaddafi's forces, some are killed and others are running away," he said.
Mr Salem said the rebels in Misrata would now help those elsewhere in western Libya against Gaddafi's forces, who cracked down on the west early on in the uprising against the Libyan leader's four-decade rule after the east fell to the rebels.
The Libyan government acknowledged late on Friday that the siege had been broken when rebels seized the port and Nato air strikes had taken their toll. "The tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical solution, but it doesn't work, with the air strikes it doesn't work," Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said.
"We will leave it for the tribes around Misrata and the Misrata people to deal with the situation in Misrata," he told reporters in Tripoli.
"After they heard the news, people began breathing freely. The women were making ululations and they went on to the streets beeping their car horns," one rebel activist told Associated Press.