A group of wounded Libyan soldiers captured by rebels in Misrata said today they had come under fierce attack from insurgents as the army tried to retreat from the besieged coastal city.
Misrata's rubble-strewn streets were lined with ruined buildings and distant explosions and machine gun fire rang out around Libya's third largest city in the morning. But it was unclear how far out of Misrata the army had managed to pull out.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's government said earlier that NATO air strikes may force it to halt fighting in the sprawling Mediterranean port city and let local tribes take over.
Soldiers, wounded and visibly terrified as they were brought by rebels to a local hospital, described scenes of heavy fighting as they tried to retreat from the city near a bridge earlier in the morning.
"We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday," one soldier, Khaled Dorman, told Reuters.
Lying in the back of a pickup truck, he was among 12 wounded army soldiers brought to a hospital for treatment in Misrata.
As he spoke, other uniformed soldiers moaned in pain, saying "My god, my god."
Another serviceman, asked by a Reuters correspondent if the government had lost control over Misrata, said "Yes".
Misrata, the last large city held by rebels in the west of the country, has been under siege for nearly two months. Hundreds of people have died in shelling and fighting, petrol is scarce and thousands of migrant workers are trapped there.
Ayad Muhammad, a young soldier, said troops had come under attack from rebel forces earlier in the day.
"The rebels attacked us while we were withdrawing from Misrata near a bridge this morning," he said.
Minutes later, a group of rebels drove away in their vehicles from the hospital with two government soldiers.
Hospital workers swept blood off the floor of the facility after some of the soldiers were taken away.
Gasping for air with a leg wound, another soldier, Abdulmahmoud Abdel Salam, sat in the back of a pickup truck, shaking.
Another government soldier sat nervously in the back of a pickup truck parked outside the hospital as rebels tried to tie his hands behind his back.
Looking scared, he shook his head and repeated: "No, no".
A distressed local resident walked up to the soldier holding a picture of a young man who he said was his son.
"Look at what Gaddafi has done to my son," he shouted, shaking the photograph in the air.
Asked if Gaddafi would stay in power, Amran Ali Khalifa, another soldier, said quietly: "Only god knows what Gaddafi will do."