Libyan rebels brace for government attack on Misrata

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The Independent Online

The last rebel holdout in western Libya was bracing for a government attack today, with signs rebel morale was faltering after they were defeated or forced to retreat in other parts of the country.

Libyan troops forced rebels to retreat with a sustained bombardment and the front line moved back 12 miles overnight from the outskirts of the Ras Lanuf oil town, 380 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli, a rebel officer said today.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was the country's interior minister before he defected to the rebel side, acknowledged that Gadhafi's forces now control both the town and the oil refinery in Ras Lanouf.

The city of Misrata, about 125 miles east of Tripoli and with a population of around 300,000, has been mostly calm since rebels repelled a major attack by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi last weekend.

Zawiyah, the only other town in western Libya where the rebels had openly defied Gaddafi's rule, was recaptured this week, with the government taking foreign journalists for a visit there yesterday to showcase its victory.

"We know that his forces have encircled Misrata from all sides. They are 15 to 20 km away from the centre of town with their tanks and heavy weapons," Mohamad Ahmed, a rebel fighter in Misrata told Reuters by telephone.

"We are bracing for a massacre. We know it will happen and Misrata will be like Zawiyah but we believe in God. We do not have the capabilities to fight Gaddafi and his forces. They have tanks and heavy weapons and we have our belief and trust in God," he said.

Gemal, a rebel spokesman, said the town was calm today and put on a brave face, saying rebel morale remained high.

"We do not consider what happened in Zawiyah a defeat, these are new crimes against humanity by Gaddafi's forces which are using all the weapons at their disposal," he said.

"The rebels in Misrata are ready for any attack and we are going to give back hope to all the regions of Libya. Life has gone back to normal here, the only thing we are missing is medicines, we are calling urgently for humanitarian help."

It was impossible to independently verify the reports.

Libyan officials say the rebels are gangsters and al Qaeda operatives and they have used the minimum force necessary to dislodge them from towns.

Ahmed said the rebels felt increasingly abandoned by world powers who have stepped up diplomatic pressure on Gaddafi to quit but stopped short of endorsing air strikes, a no-fly zone or other military-backed means to achieve that goal.

Libyan rebels said their three-week-old insurrection could fail without a no-fly zone.

"The fighters here and the people of Misrata hold the international community responsible for the fall of Zawiyah and for all the deaths that happened. Gaddafi is responsible but they are partners in crime," he said.

"They do not care for us. All they care for is the oil and it seems they are waiting to see who is going to win so that they can deal with them, whether it's Gaddafi or us. They do not want to burn their bridges with him. All they do is saying they are assessing the situation. Why are they taking so long?"

A Libyan man in exile abroad said he spoke to several people in Misrata.

"There were clashes last night and they (rebels) captured some Land Cruisers and one armoured personnel carrier. The city is quiet this morning," he said.

He said residents and rebels have been expecting an attack on Misrata for several days but so far the town had seen only low level clashes on the outskirts.

With Zawiyah now in Gaddafi hands, government troops were expected to switch their attention to Misrata, he said.