Wednesday 23 August 2017

Libya rebels plead for Nato to send in troops

Without forces on ground it's over, Misrata defenders tell WestEXODUS: An evacuee arrives by ship at the port of Benghazi after fleeing the besieged Libyan city of Misrata last Friday

Harriet Sherwood in Tripoli

THE city that has become the epicentre of a desperate battle by Libyan rebels against forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi came under renewed pounding yesterday, amid mounting evidence of the use of cluster bombs against the civilian population and calls for Nato to send in ground troops.

More than 100 rockets had been fired on opposition-held areas of Misrata by mid-morning and there were "raging battles" in two strategically key streets, according to rebels. The assault added pressure on the city's beleaguered hospitals, which are already overwhelmed with appalling injuries and a rising death toll. Most of the casualties are civilians, and they include many women and children, say doctors.

TV pictures showed scenes of devastation and desperation from inside the city -- Libya's third largest and home to around 300,000 people -- which has been under intense attack for seven weeks.

Mohamed, a rebel spokesman who asked for his full name to be withheld, said "the killing and destruction and human suffering" was relentless. "The massacre that was prevented in Benghazi is now happening in Misrata. There is nowhere safe in the city," he said.

Evidence that Gaddafi's forces are now targeting cluster bombs on civilian neighbourhoods of Misrata is likely to fuel calls for accelerated action from Nato, whose military actions and international sanctions against the regime have succeeded in weakening Gaddafi but have failed so far to secure a decisive breakthrough in the conflict. Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed witness reports that the munitions, banned by more than 100 countries, were being fired on the city. Cluster bombs explode in mid-air, indiscriminately throwing out dozens of high-explosive bomblets which cause widespread damage and injuries over a large area. The sub-munitions often fail to explode on impact but detonate when stepped on or picked up.

"They pose a huge risk to civilians, both during attacks, because of their indiscriminate nature, and afterward because of the still dangerous unexploded duds scattered about," said Steve Goose, HRW's arms division director. The Libyan government denied its forces were using the munitions, challenging HRW to provide incontrovertible proof. Libya has not signed the convention on cluster munitions, which bans the bombs.

Amnesty's Donatella Rovera said she had found "several bomblets and canisters all over the centre of town". Mohamed said Misrata's hospitals were seeing victims of what he described as "candy bombs -- something that resembles a pretty bottle. You pick it up and it explodes and kills you."

Rebels hold the port area and the north and east of the city, which is surrounded on three sides by government forces. "He has identified the throat and he is going for it," Mohamed said. "Gaddafi's forces are trying to destroy the port and the port area at all costs. They know it's the lifeline for Misrata and they want to cut it off."

Residents are corralled in an ever-decreasing area, lacking adequate food, clean water, sanitation and medical supplies. Many homes now have multiple occupants as people have fled neighbourhoods under fire.

The electricity supply was limited to six hours every three days, said Mohamed, and food was becoming scarce -- "especially vegetables and manufactured products like macaroni. There's been no water for God knows how long. Misrata is really feeling the effects of the siege and the destruction and the murderous shelling".

The shelling, he said, was "random, crazy. No one feels safe in the city. There is nowhere safe to go. You can imagine the pressure and anxiety and fear that strikes into people".

Ms Rovera, who arrived by boat in Misrata on Friday, said she had found "scores and scores" of Grad rockets in a residential neighbourhood.

They were "in people's bedrooms and kitchens, gardens, courtyards, in the streets. This neighbourhood was considered safe till yesterday, but is obviously no longer so. Families who had fled other areas had gone there, and yesterday after the shelling they left again to seek shelter elsewhere -- but people are running out of places to shelter as more and more areas are coming under fire".

Mohamed said the large numbers of displaced people were "putting a strain on everyone. Seventy per cent of the population is crammed into 30 per cent of the city. Schools, mosques and community centres are full of people".

Paulo Grosso, an Italian anaesthetist from the NGO Emergency, said the hospital where he is based, two kilometres from the frontline, had seen an average of 10 deaths and 40 wounded people each day. Most were civilians, including children. "We are seeing gunshot wounds, injuries from shelling and bomb explosions," he said.

Twenty-three civilians were killed last Thursday alone. The hospital was suffering a critical shortage of nurses, he said, as the Filipino staff had fled.

A doctor from Medecins Sans Frontieres, Morten Rostrup, said medical supplies were running critically short and "doctors were being forced to discharge patients prematurely".

Typical injuries were headshot wounds, brain damage, chest traumas and fractures. People with chronic medical conditions were also suffering because of the lack of supplies, he said.

Rebel boats from Benghazi carrying arms and aid to Misrata are attempting to dock in the port, along with international aid ships trying to evacuate civilians.

Rebel fighters in Misrata have called on Nato to step up its airstrikes on loyalist positions around the city. Nato has said Misrata is its "number one priority".

Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy last week described the government attack on Misrata as a "medieval siege . . . to strangle its population into submission".

In a jointly authored article, the three leaders wrote: "The brave citizens that have held out against forces that have been mercilessly targeting them would face a fearful vengeance if the world accepted (Gaddafi staying). It would be an unconscionable betrayal," they said.

Mohamed said the rebel opposition in Misrata had appealed to Nato to send ground troops to relieve the city. They were, he said, grateful for the international coalition's military intervention. "But we're surprised. And we're angry. We are angered by the lack of hits on Gaddafi's troops by Nato forces.

"It's getting to the point where it's troops on the ground -- or it's over. We are so grateful and relieved by the international community's efforts, it's just that they didn't go the extra steps, and that has played into the tyrant's hands. He will massacre the people of Misrata. If a massacre happens, (Nato's) credibility is on the line."

© Observer

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