March 12, 2011 / 1:50 PM / in 7 years

UPDATE 3-Libyan troops defect near rebel-held Misrata-rebel

* Last rebel-held town in western Libya

* Govt spokesman says “looks like a Zawiyah scenario”

(Adds Misrata quotes, background)

By Mariam Karouny

RAS JDIR, Tunisia, March 12 (Reuters) - Some government troops fighting for control of Libya’s rebel-held city of Misrata defected on Saturday and joined the rebellion, a rebel spokesman there said.

Rebels in Misrata said forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi tried to retake Misrata, the last major rebel holdout in western Libya, earlier in the day but failed.

Rebel spokesman Gemal said by telephone that Libya’s feared 32nd Brigade, commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis, had moved closer to the city but its advance was hindered by a munity.

“In the morning, there was a gathering of pro-Gaddafi forces with the apparent aim of attacking the city but God protected this city. There was some dissent within the Khamis Brigade,” he said from Misrata.

”We knew from soldiers who defected after the dispute. They joined the rebels and said that dozens of the battalion members expressed reluctance to kill innocent civilians.

“Some of them ran away. More would have joined us but they were shot by the pro-Gaddafi men.”

The events could not be confirmed independently. Journalists have been prevented from reaching the city by the authorities.

Earlier this week, government forces recaptured the city of Zawiyah -- the only other town in western Libya which openly defied Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Misrata residents and rebels said government troops had tried to fight their way into the city earlier in the day.

One rebel, Mohamad Ahmed, said he could hear the sound of anti-aircraft guns getting closer to the city centre.

IMPORTANT HUB

Misrata -- around 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli -- is Libya’s third largest city and an important commercial hub with a population of about 300,000.

The government says the rebels are bandits or al Qaeda operatives. Gaddafi’s opponents themselves deny any link to religious militants, saying they are fighting for democratic change.

Rebels and residents in Misrata had been preparing for a government onslaught since troops regained control of Zawiyah, a smaller town 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, this week.

Mussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman in Tripoli, could not confirm nor deny a military operation was under way in Misrata.

“We want to give people a chance to lay down their arms. There is a hard core of al Qaeda fighters there. It looks like a Zawiyah scenario,” he said.

“Some people will give up, some will disappear, so their numbers are declining. Tribal leaders are talking to them. Those who stay behind, we will deal with them accordingly. Misrata will be completely within united Libya very soon”. Others in Misrata said the besieged city, much like Zawiyah in the last days before its fall, was running out of medicine.

“What worries us the most about the humanitarian situation is the lack of medicines and care facilities,” said a Misrata resident, who gave his named only as Mohammed.

The rebel spokesman Gemal said: “There is a lack of medicine and medical equipment. There is no way for the city to replenish the stock...There is no shortage of food, praise to Allah.” (More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH] ) (Reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat, Tarek Amara in Tunis, and Maria Golovnina in Tripoli; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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