* Misrata and Zintan face attacks from grad missiles-rebels
* Ship rescues wounded, migrants from Misrata despite shells
* Rights group in Libya
(Releads, adds EU statement on Misrata, U.S. on rebels)
By Lin Noueihed
TRIPOLI, April 27 (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pounded Misrata and another rebel-held town in western Libya on Wednesday after NATO air strikes drove them back from Misrata’s port, the lifeline of the besieged enclave, rebels said.
Misrata has become the focus of Gaddafi’s drive to break an uprising against his four-decade rule that has put most of eastern Libya in rebel hands since it began in mid-February.
The rebels said Gaddafi’s forces fired Russian-made Grad rockets, a multiple-volley system which rights groups say is highly inaccurate, at the port and also into the centre of the rebel-held town of Zintan following NATO strikes on Misrata.
The Western alliance had been reluctant to fire on Gaddafi’s forces in Misrata for fear of hitting civilians, but rebels said NATO air strikes had destroyed 37 military vehicles overnight.
“Gaddafi’s forces retreated from the port area where they were positioned yesterday after air strikes by the NATO forces,” a rebel spokesman called Reda said by telephone from Misrata.
On Wednesday morning, he said they began hitting an area about 10 km (6 miles) north of the city. “The bombardment is still going on. They are using Grad missiles,” he said.
Human Rights Watch says the Grad, or “Hail” in Russian, should never be used in civilian areas, but rebels said they were also used in Zintan in the Western Mountains region.
“There was intense bombardment this morning. Around 15 Grad rockets landed in the town centre, two of them landed where I’m standing now,” a rebel spokesman in Zintan, Abdulrahman, said.
“Five houses were destroyed. Nobody was killed, luckily, but some children were slightly wounded,” he said by telephone.
Later on Wednesday, Gaddafi’s forces began firing mortar rounds at a district in the west of Misrata, a rebel spokesman said. “They carried out intense bombardment, using mortars,” the spokesman, called Safieddin, said by telephone from the city.
Both the rebels and the European Union said the shelling of the Misrata port threatened a vital supply and rescue route.
“We are receiving reports of hospitals being overwhelmed by a growing number of wounded,” EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement.
An aid ship took advantage of a brief lull in the fighting to rescue Libyans and a French journalist wounded in the fighting in Misrata, along with migrant workers, from the western rebel enclave and headed for Benghazi, centre of the rebel heartland in the east.
“Despite heavy shelling of the port area ... about 935 migrants and Libyans have been rescued and are now safely en route to Benghazi,” the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.
A U.N. human rights group arrived in Libya to investigate accusations pro-Gaddafi forces have violated human rights and attacked civilians. Libya says security forces were forced to act against armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathisers trying to seize control of the oil exporting country.
“We have a number of questions dealing with indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, civilian casualties, torture and the use of mercenaries and other questions,” said Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian legal expert and member of the U.N. commission.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city, said eight local people had been killed in fighting on Tuesday, up from the previous figure of three killed. The rebels also noted shelling of the port had prevented some evacuations, after a Red Cross ship had to leave in a hurry on Tuesday.
Military deadlock in Libya has exposed growing international rifts, with critics of NATO bombing calling it another case of the West trying to overthrow a government by stretching the terms of a U.N. resolution.
The rebels themselves have sometimes accused NATO of not doing enough to drive back Gaddafi’s forces. Hampered by inexperience and a shortage of weapons, they also face problems with food supplies and financing for areas under their control.
The first major oil shipment from rebel-held east Libya, reported to be 80,000 tonnes of crude, was expected to arrive in Singapore on Thursday for refuelling but oil traders told Reuters finding a buyer was not straightforward, with many of the usual traders still worried about legal complications.
Washington said on Wednesday the eastern rebels’ self-declared transitional government deserved support but had not decided whether to formally recognise it.
Britain’s Defence Secretary said the campaign in Libya had made progress since U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen said last week the conflict was nearing stalemate, with rebels controlling the east and Gaddafi entrenched in the capital Tripoli.
“I don’t think we’re in a position of stalemate,” Liam Fox said in parliament, citing a decision by Italy to join air raids, Kuwaiti funding for rebels and U.S. deployment of unmanned drones to support his argument. (Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Algiers, Guy Desmond and Maher Nazeh in Tripoli, Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi and Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Adrian Croft, Tim Castle and Mohammed Abbas in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Philippa Fletcher)