* NATO warplanes hit sites in Tripoli area
* Migrants die at sea after fleeing Libya for Europe
(Adds witness in Misrata, rebel council spokesman)
By Guy Desmond
TRIPOLI, May 10 (Reuters) - Libyan government forces bombarded a residential area outside Misrata on Tuesday, said rebels battling to maintain their grip on the city in the face of a fierce onslaught.
Fighting in the city has ebbed and flowed over the past few weeks but rebels appeared to have gained some ground by surrounding loyalist soldiers in the airport and air force academy in the south from all directions, a witness said.
“Gaddafi’s forces are holed up in the airport and the air force academy,” resident and rebel sympathiser Ghassan said.
His account could not be independently verified.
“Rebels I talked to said the plan is to enter the airport in the next two days,” Ghassan said by telephone.
Misrata is key to rebel hopes of overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi because it is the last city they control in the west of the North African country.
Rebel council spokesman Ibrahim Betalmal in Misrata called on Gaddafi forces to abandon the eight-week-old battle.
“He who surrenders or joins the rebels is safe and he who decides to withdraw and return home is safe,” he said in a video on Youtube.
The government says most Libyans support Gaddafi and calls the rebels armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. It says NATO’s intervention is an act of colonial aggression by Western powers bent on stealing the country’s oil.
After two months of conflict linked to this year’s uprisings in other Arab countries, rebels hold Benghazi and other towns in the east while the government controls the capital and almost all of the west of the North African state.
Gaddafi has not appeared publicly since April 30, when a NATO air strike on a house in the capital killed his youngest son and three of his grandchildren.
The war has killed thousands and caused misery for tens of thousands of migrants forced to flee overland or by boat.
Aid agencies say witnesses reported a vessel carrying between 500 and 600 people foundered late last week near Tripoli and many bodies were seen in the water.
Even before that, around 800 people had gone missing since March 25 after trying to escape Libya, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most were from sub-Saharan Africa.
South of Misrata, fresh battles erupted in Souk al Arab and at al-Ghiran near the city’s airport, a rebel spokesman said.
“The revolutionaries (rebels) entered the area of Souk al Arab ... Fighting is taking place there now,” said rebel spokesman Belkacem from Misrata. His comments could not be independently confirmed.
Rebels also took the town of Zareek, about 25 km (15 miles) west of Misrata, after fighting on Monday but were still trying to extinguish fuel tanks ignited overnight on Friday in a government attack, he said.
“Gaddafi’s forces bombarded a residential area west of the city this morning at 0300 (local time). That area was subject to random bombardment,” he said by telephone.
NATO appeared to back up the rebel claim.
“Pro-Gaddafi forces have continued to shell the citizens of Misrata with longer range artillery, mortars and rockets, indiscriminately firing high explosive rounds into the city,” said Brigadier-General Claudio Gabellini, chief operations officer of NATO’s Libya mission.
The proximity of government forces to civilian areas made it hard for NATO to carry out its mandate of protecting civilians, he told reporters in Brussels, adding NATO had still managed to destroy over 30 military targets in the city since April 29.
NATO carried out missile strikes on Tuesday in the Tripoli area on targets that appeared to include Gaddafi’s compound, witnesses said. NATO said later it carried out a strike against a government command and control facility in downtown Tripoli.
Libyan officials said NATO air strikes in the Tripoli area overnight wounded four children and two of them were seriously hurt by flying glass caused by blasts.
Officials showed foreign journalists a hospital in the capital where some windows were shattered, apparently by blast waves from a NATO strike that toppled a nearby telecommunications tower.
The journalists were also taken to a government building housing the high commission for children, which had been completely destroyed. The old colonial building had been damaged before, in what officials said was a NATO bombing on April 30.
“The direction of at least one blast suggests Gaddafi’s compound has been targeted,” said one witness.
No other information was immediately available. (Reporting by Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Barbara Lewis in Geneva and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; writing by Sylvia Westall; editing by Andrew Roche)