* Govt forces fire dozens of rockets near port
* Rebels say 23 people killed in artillery assault
* Rebel spokesman says port shut on Thursday
* State TV says Misrata “enjoying peace and security”
(Adds rebel spokesman saying port shut, aid ship arrives)
By Hamid Ould Ahmed and Mariam Karouny
ALGIERS/BEIRUT, April 14 (Reuters) - Libyan rebels said a government rocket attack on a residential district of Misrata killed 23 civilians on Thursday and that heavy shelling forced closure of its port, a lifeline for the besieged western city.
A rebel spokesman said troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi appeared to be deliberately targeting civilians in Misrata. Most of the dead were reported to be women and children, along with three Egyptian migrant workers waiting to be evacuated.
“A massacre ... will take place here if NATO does not intervene strongly,” a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Abdelsalam, told Reuters by telephone from Misrata.
Another insurgent spokesman, Ghassan, said Misrata’s rebel-controlled port was closed on Thursday because of heavy shelling, which he said had caused major destruction in the district.
“Over 200 Grad missiles fell on the port area, including residential neighborhoods near the port. They shelled this area because the port is Misrata’s only window to the outside world. The port was shut today because of the shelling,” he said.
“The port was shut in the morning and remains closed. The management decided to shut it down after it became clear that the shelling by pro-Gaddafi forces was deliberately targeting the port,” Ghassan said.
A rescue ship has docked in the port to begin evacuating nearly 8,300 stranded migrants, many in an “extremely poor state”, the International Organisation for Migration said. But it was not immediately clear whether the chartered vessel would be able to offload aid due to the shelling, the IOM said.
Aid organisations have warned of a humanitarian disaster in Misrata, where hundreds of civilians are said to have died in a six-week siege.
Rebels defending Misrata, their last major enclave in western Libya and the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks, say the situation was getting worse each day.
“There is no baby milk. There is also an acute shortage of food and medicine. People cannot come out to try to buy what they need for fear of being hit by snipers and shells,” said Abdelsalam, the rebel spokesman.
Government forces unleashed a barrage of Russian-made rockets on Misrata’s Kasr Ahmad district, located near the rebel-controlled port, at dawn and rebels said shelling continued in the city centre.
It is hard to independently verify accounts from western Libya because journalists are prevented from reporting freely.
Government troops have laid siege to Misrata since the city rose up in revolt along with others against Gaddafi’s four-decade autocratic rule in mid-February.
Libyan TV painted a picture of tranquillity in Misrata.
“Misrata is presently enjoying peace and security, and work is under way to clean the city and allow the return of basic services to normal,” a state-run channel said.
Rebels also faced off against Gaddafi loyalists in al Ghanamiya, located about 30 km (20 miles) east of Zintan in the country’s Western Mountains region, a Zintan resident said.
“In Zintan, the situation is getting worse. The town is paralysed. We are without fuel, water and food,” the resident called Abdulrahman said.
Libyan officials say they are fighting armed militia with ties to al Qaeda bent on destroying the North African country.
Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Richard Lough and Fredrik Dahl; editing by Mark Heinrich