April 11, 2011 / 4:49 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 3-Rebels: pro-Gaddafi forces step up attack on Misrata

* Rebels say Grad rockets fired on city for first time

* Reports of intense street fighting

* Rebel spokesman: “We see no sign of ceasefire”

(Adds quotes)

By Hamid Ould Ahmed and Mariam Karouny

ALGIERS/BEIRUT, April 11 (Reuters) - Rebels in the Libyan city of Misrata scorned reports Muammar Gaddafi had agreed to a ceasefire on Monday after his forces fired rockets on the city and fought intense house-to-house battles.

African mediators said late on Sunday the Libyan leader had accepted a peace plan which included a ceasefire, but hours later Misrata, where anti-Gaddafi rebels have been fighting off attacks for weeks, came under renewed bombardment.

For the first time in Misrata, rebels said, pro-Gaddafi forces used Russian-made Grad rockets — munitions fired in multiple rounds from launchers on the back of trucks, which take their name from the Russian word for “hail”.

“This is a new escalation and a new level,” rebel spokesman Mahmoud Amloda told Reuters by telephone. “We do not see any sign of a ceasefire. We do not want war. But what choice do we have? We have to defend ourselves. He (Gaddafi) is destroying everything like a madman and causing havoc.”

Misrata, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, is the country’s third biggest city and the last big rebel stronghold in the west of Libya. Surrounded on three sides by troops, with the port the only lifeline, it has been subjected to weeks of shelling and sniper fire, steadily forcing the rebels back into a shrinking area of the city still under their control.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report it had documented about 250 deaths — most of them of civilians — from the fighting in Misrata over the past month.

STREET FIGHTING

Accounts from Misrata could not be independently verified because Libyan authorities have prevented journalists from reporting freely from the city. Libyan officials deny attacking civilians there, saying they are fighting armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathisers bent on destroying the country.

Another rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam told Reuters battles had broken out at the eastern entrance to the city and in the centre along Tripoli Street, the main thoroughfare.

“Heavy and fierce fighting is now taking place,” he said.

He quoted medical workers as saying three people were killed in Monday’s fighting. Shelling in the early hours of the morning hit an area near the rebel-controlled port. “About 4,000 refugees were staying near the area which was hit in the bombardment, but fortunately nobody was hurt,” he said.

Another resident said government forces shelled a residential area near Tripoli Street. “Pro-Gaddafi forces are now shelling Al Bira ... using heavy artillery,” Misrata resident Ghassan said by phone. “One witness told us that some 140 shells landed in the area and the shelling goes on.”

A UK-based Libyan doctor in daily contact with Misrata said there had been heavy shelling since the morning.

“This heavy bombardment has caused major damage in the city and many lives of innocent people have been lost,” he said.

“People in Misrata are wondering why NATO has not yet managed to stop Gaddafi’s forces from killing innocent people and destroying their houses.”

Libyan television earlier showed what it said was live footage of a demonstration in Misrata. The crowd of men, women and children chanted slogans and waved Gaddafi pictures.

Abdelsalam said food and medicine had run short and people had been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, crowding into the houses of friends and relatives in other parts of the city.

“I met members of two families who were trapped in their homes near Tripoli Street for 12 days after Gaddafi’s forces captured the area and positioned themselves there,” he said.

“Two brothers and their families had to live in the kitchen because other rooms were damaged or destroyed and they were too scared to leave. The shelling was indiscriminate and they knew there were snipers. Pro-Gaddafi soldiers entered their house and accused them of being Al Qaeda sympathisers.”

He said they later managed to escape to a safer area.

“This has become a ghost city,” he said. “Most residents fled to stay in houses in relatively safe areas. There are about five to six families in each house.

“Water is still cut off, there is no electricity. There is also a shortage of medical equipment and food. There is no sign of baby milk. People are terrified.” (Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Maria Golovnina; writing by Christian Lowe and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; editing by Andrew Roche)

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