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Gaddafi's forces continue their savage assault on besieged city

The last rebel stronghold in the west of the country is a symbol of defiance. Kim Sengupta reports from Misrata

The missiles came in at 3.20am, exploding in regular bursts, smashing down walls and shattering windows. The possible target was an oil depot, but again it was the civilians who paid a lethal price – as they had done so often in Misrata. Five bodies were dug out of the rubble and another 20 were wounded. The attack had taken place four hours after Muammar Gaddafi had supposedly accepted a peace deal to end this vicious civil war.

Few people here believe that the regime has any intention of ending its ferocious attacks on the city, an onslaught which has continued since Libya's revolution began six weeks ago. The city is under a brutal siege, so the agreement being brokered by the African Union has little resonance. The reality on the ground is the noise of gunfire and snipers at work.

As the last rebel holdout in the west, Misrata has become a symbol of defiance, a place of resilience and determination which is bloody but unbowed despite the weeks of fierce pounding. The defiance of this opposition enclave, so close to the capital, seemed to have enraged Colonel Gaddafi's regime as it lashed out repeatedly in frustrated fury. Unlike the east of the country, where the disorganised rebel forces have repeatedly fled from loyalist fire, this is a battleground where enemies meet each other in the intimacy of implacable hatred. No quarter is asked or given, and neither side appears to believe that there will be an end to the strife in the foreseeable future.

Yesterday the revolutionary fighters were attempting to clear Tripoli Street, which runs into the city's heart. The area is largely under the control of regime troops and a place from where they have launched assaults.

The conditions of the unequal contest have been altered, to an extent, by the intervention of Western powers with air strikes, prolonged and sustained over the last few days, destroying tanks and artillery. Mohammed Abu Shamah, a rebel commander in the area, said: "Had it not been for the Nato warplanes, Gaddafi would have owned Misrata and most of us would be dead. So, of course, we are very thankful. But his dogs are still here and they have to be cleared street by street. Nato cannot do that, we have to do that ourselves, and it is not easy."

Abu Shamah left his post-graduate work at Manchester University to join the revolution. Receiving treatment for a bullet wound to his left hand at a local hospital before returning to the fray, he told The Independent: "We have less tank fire now, but there are still a lot of ordinary people getting hurt and killed."

What did he make of the African Union proposal? "I do not know the details" he said. "But it does not matter, Gaddafi will not stop hitting Misrata. He is a man who believes in vengeance." Doctors in the city say that about 600 have been killed and more than 3,000 injured. Unicef estimates that 20 children have died, with many more injured in the past few weeks. The victims are as young as nine months and most of them are under 10 years old. Children have also been maimed and killed by cluster bombs. The devices, often brightly coloured, have been found in fields and curious children have picked them up. "The kids think they are toys, and they blow up," said Dr Khalif Abu Fadha, holding up a de-activated bomblet.

But it is the use of heavy weapons, at times indiscriminately, that is taking the heaviest toll. Abdurahaman Al Arbah, 15, lies in a bed with extensive injuries to his lower limbs. A missile had slammed into his home as he was sitting with his family. "My parents were worried about me going out because people we know have been shot. But there is no safety in Misrata, wherever you are," he said.

Along the corridor was another boy, just three years older than him, with the same first name. But they are on opposing sides. Abdurahaman Abu Salem, who has injuries to his torso, is a soldier in the regime's army.

"I was in the electronic college which supports the military," he said hesitantly, as if a wrong word would condemn him. "I was sent to 32nd Khatiba [regiment run by Khamis, one of Colonel Gaddafi's sons] and after two weeks' training I was sent to Sirte. After that they said Misrata wants you. I was in Misrata and there was fighting going on. An officer abandoned us. I was trying to run back to my own lines when one of my own side shot me. I was shot through the chest."

The account may or not be true, delivered as it was by a frightened young man being held prisoner. His next words stumbled out: "I haven't seen my family for a long time, my parents, I miss them very much, I don't know when I'll see them again." His voice faded away and he cried.

At least some of the horrific injuries were the result of deliberate acts of almost-casual brutality. A group of regime soldiers had burst into 44-year-old Othman Baiyoh's home at the Karzas district and manhandled his family. They turned their guns on him when he attempted to stop them, neighbours said.

"The gentleman was shot at very close range, the barrel touching him, I would say, at the back of the neck. The bullet came out through the mouth. He is now a quadriplegic," Dr Ramadan Atewah said. "He is on a ventilator, but the only way of saving him would be treatment abroad." Dr Atewah, 55, is another expatriate from Britain who has returned to do what he can in his country of birth, taking leave from his post in Stoke-on-Trent.

"I was watching what was going on on television and I felt devastated. So I said to my wife that I must go and help," he said. "No one wants this violence to continue, no one wants Libyans going on killing each other. But we cannot have any agreement with Gaddafi and his sons staying in this country. They have caused so much suffering.

"How would people in Misrata feel if this cruel, cruel man was allowed to stay on? All their sacrifices over so long would have been wasted."