Libyans panic over expired gas masks

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An urgent appeal for gas masks to be sent to the residents of Misrata has been delayed after supplies in Benghazi were found to have expired and be useless. Unconfirmed reports yesterday that pro-Gaddafi forces who are surrounding the port city have been seen wearing masks prompted an urgent appeal to Libya's interim government in Benghazi.

But a source who has been shipping food, medicine and weapons to Misrata said stocks of masks in Benghazi were out of date. “They have been asking for them but the ones here are useless, they have expired,” said the source.

The scramble to find gas masks comes after forces loyal to Col. Gaddafi issued an ultimatum to the rebels defending the city to surrender by midnight tonight. There have been fears that the regime will commit further atrocities in the wake of the alleged death of one of Col. Gaddafi's sons – Saif al-Arab - in a Nato airstrike on Tripoli on Saturday.

“We know he has chemical weapons and he is capable of anything,” said Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the provisional national council in Benghazi, last night. “We will send anything we have but right now we don't have enough masks for even a fraction of people in Benghazi.”

Meanwhile a vessel carrying humanitarian aid was forced to wait outside Misrata yesterday while Nato ships swept the approach to the port for mines. Nato minesweepers searched the approaches of Misrata harbour yesterday for a drifting mine that has blocked aid supplies to the besieged Libyan city and halted evacuation of foreigners and wounded Libyans.

The alliance destroyed two of three mines on Friday but fears remain that more may have been laid. "A third mine drifted free before specialised ships could arrive," Nato said in a statement. "Nato mine hunters are now working to locate and destroy this mine and to scan the area for any further possible threats."

The International Organization for Migration, which has been evacuating people from the port said at least one mine was still visible between its ship and the harbour. "We will wait until Tuesday noon," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy. "We are still hoping that things will improve."

Witnesses in the city where hundreds of people have been killed by indiscriminate shelling said that sporadic rocket fire continued until yesterday afternoon. Coalition airstrikes and a fierce Libyan resistance force on the ground have force Gaddafi loyalists from the city centre.

However, concentrated fire on the port area has succeeded in temporarily cutting Misrata's lifeline to the outside world.

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