Gaddafi in big push to crush rebels
Remorseless barrage of tank fire unleashed in assault on Misurata
Troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi have redoubled a ferocious assault on Misurata, the western Libyan city, in a final push to crush the rebel fighters and civilians who dared to take control in an uprising against his rule six weeks ago.
Libyan army forces unleashed a remorseless barrage of tank fire and artillery shells yesterday amid fresh reports from residents that soldiers have been indiscriminately killing and kidnapping men and raping women as they forced their way, house by house, towards the centre.
The assault came as, 200 miles to the east, rebel fighters were accidentally the victims of a Nato air strike that mistook them for a pro-Gaddafi militia after they apparently fired into the air when planes were passing overhead. Around 14 rebels were killed.
A civilian rebel official said the dead included an ambulance driver and three medical students from Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east.
They had been part of a rebel convoy of five or six vehicles, said Issa Khamis, liaison officer for the rebels' transitional government in the town of Ajdabiya, east of Brega.
As the main front line between rebels and government forces remained somewhere near the outskirts of the oil town of Brega last night, it was in Misurata that the Gaddafi regime appeared to be making its most violent push.
Medical officials working in the city said the Gaddafi forces -- which include green-fatigued soldiers of the Khamis special forces brigade, commanded by Gaddafi's youngest son -- were aiming to cause maximum suffering to the terrified population.
"The weapons that they use are not meant to prevent movement in the city, but to cause also deformation or paralysis so the suffering of the people endures all their lives," one doctor said.
Some 243 have been killed and at least 1,000 wounded in more than a month and a half of fighting, city officials say, with a fresh round of casualties yesterday.
One resident, a 26-year-old teacher, described the desperate measures taken to escape the city. She told how she and her children were trapped in their home before protesters helped them tunnel through the walls to safety.
"We were trapped for four days in the basement of our house, just hearing explosions and gunfire," she said. "We were so scared.
"The snipers were killing everyone -- they didn't care if it was a woman or a child -- they just wanted to kill. The protesters rescued us by making holes in the walls of the house, tunnels in the house."
She said that pro-Gaddafi snipers were breaking into homes and killing or raping civilians inside before ascending to the rooftops to use them as vantage points.
"Every minute we are afraid that we might be killed. We are human beings. We did nothing but ask for freedom. Gaddafi has no mercy. God help us," she said.
Other Misurata residents have been kidnapped and forced to appear on Libyan state television praising Gaddafi. The wreckage of makeshift opposition barricades was scattered all along Tripoli Street, formerly the main commercial thoroughfare in the town, when reporters were taken by the regime to view progress on retaking the city last week.
Snipers could be seen on rooftops surveying a terrain in which ransacked homes stood empty after being looted by soldiers, and civilian cars sat discarded, riddled with bullet holes. Buildings along the normally vibrant central avenue were smouldering in the wake of tank strikes.
Nato is limited in its ability to intervene from the air because in many places the Gaddafi forces are located among the city's civilians.
As well as deploying the Khamis Brigade, the Libyan government has been sending mercenary African tribesmen from the Saharan nation of Niger -- originally hired to battle al-Qaeda in remote corners of the country -- into battle on the streets of Misurata.
After days helping to terrorise the city, mercenary fighters from feared Tuareg tribes are rewarded with a stay in a luxury hotel in Tripoli.
One of 40 fighters relaxing at the five-star Corinthia Hotel yesterday said they had been battling al-Qaeda-linked groups in the desert and been financed by Gaddafi for years.
He said they had been brought from Niger and would do whatever was asked of them by the Libyan leader.
"He did everything for us," said Mohammad, a fighter wearing expensive sunglasses.
"When neither our government nor Mali helped us, Gaddafi took care of us. So we have come from the Sahara desert on foot to die for him. We love Muammar Gaddafi. He is great."
Aghaly Ag Alambo, former rebel leader of the Niger Movement for Justice, is believed to live in Tripoli and is a key co-ordinator of the regime's recruitment drive among the tribes.
Sources in Niger said that Libya had opened recruitment offices throughout the Sahara since the uprising began and 800 fighters were leaving each week to fight for the regime.
In the east, Nato warplanes killed around 14 rebels early Saturday after a stream of anti-aircraft fire was fired in to the night sky.
The air strike was the first major 'friendly fire' incident of the chaotic desert war since western planes joined the fight two weeks ago.
"I only feel sad about the people who died, I don't blame the pilots at all," said Tarek Al-Shagaaby, aged 25, a law student turned rebel.