April 20, 2011 / 9:55 PM / in 7 years

Snipers strike fear into civilians in Libya's Misrata

MISRATA, Libya, April 20 (Reuters) - Ten-year-old Mohammad Hassan lies in a hospital bed with a bullet wound to the head in the besieged city of Misrata, hallucinating one minute and calling out for his father the next.

He is a victim of what doctors say must have been a sniper loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

“My head, my head,” cries the boy, tossing and turning as his mother paces the room.

Verses from the Koran play on a cellphone, about the only form of comfort available to a family which like others are scared government forces will recapture Misrata.

Snipers have become among the most feared combatants in the battle for Misrata, the only major rebel-held town in western Libya and under siege for more than seven weeks.

There was no way of verifying whether Hassan was shot by a government sniper.

It was just assumed by doctors and the boy’s mother -- and that is something that would probably please government forces who hope fear will help them regain control.

“Mohammed and his friends were in our garage. They had gone outside to play when he had to pause to put his shoe on. In that instant the bullet hit his head,” said his mother Zeinab.

“This must have been Gaddafi’s people. They are everywhere.”

Doctor Khalid Abufalgha, a member of a Misrata medical committee that tracks casualties in the conflict, said 365 people had been killed, including 85 civilians, and 4,000 wounded in the Mediterranean town.

He said the number of civilians killed by snipers had fallen because many had been advised to leave Tripoli Street, a thoroughfare where much of the fighting is taking place.

Mortar bombs were now becoming a far graver danger, he said.

But rebels said their comrades are still highly vulnerable to skilful government snipers who possess far more effective weapons including ones with night vision scopes.

Gaddafi may be reluctant to use tanks because some have been wiped out by NATO air strikes, so snipers are becoming a more useful asset.

Rebels shot by government snipers who were being treated a few rooms away from Mohammad Hassan said they had been struggling to come up with a strategy to deal with the threat.

Mohsen al-Urayk, and a few other rebels, had decided to surround a building which they said government snipers had occupied but soon came under fire by the shooters.

They escaped unhurt but the next day did not bring such luck.

“I was standing in an apartment and suddenly I was struck in the back. I am sure it was the same people we were trying to surround,” said Urayk, a truck driver by profession.

“They are very, very dangerous.”

While Gaddafi makes use of military men and militias who have managed to help him stay in power for 41 years, the insurgent forces are made up of everyone from engineers to accountants and are learning on the job.

Another rebel wounded by a sniper’s bullet, 37-year-old businessman Abdul Hakim, insisted that he explain how badly Gaddafi’s opponents needed more advanced weapons, even though a relative suggested it would strain him too much to speak.

“We spotted these snipers days ago. They were highly disciplined. We noticed that they work in shifts. One guy focuses on his targets for two hours and then he is replaced,” said Hakim.

“And I don’t think Gaddafi will quit. We saw a colonel put two locks on the door of a building where some snipers were located. It seems he wanted to stop them from leaving, if they wanted to.” (Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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