Tribal leaders to negotiate Misrata exit for rebels

Libyan tribal leaders are trying to get rebels in the city of Misrata to lay down their arms within 48 hours, a government official said early on Sunday, after a day of fierce clashes between opposition fighters and Moammar Gaddafi's forces.

If negotiations fail, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said tribal chiefs may send armed supporters into the city of 300,000 to fight the rebels. In the meantime, the Libyan military is halting operations in Misrata, Kaim said.

However, the Misrata area is not known to have very large or dominant tribes, and rebels in the city questioned how much support Gaddafi had among them. It was also unclear whether the rebels are willing to negotiate, with Kaim saying tribal chiefs are still trying to get in touch with them.

Rebel officials have confirmed that Gaddafi's forces have pulled back, but have expressed doubts that the regime will fully withdraw from the city.

Misrata, the only major rebel stronghold in Gaddafi-controlled western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted longtime leaders. Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with Nato airstrikes that began last month.

Hundreds of people have been killed in two months of a government siege backed by tanks, mortars and snipers firing from rooftops. Late last week, rebels drove snipers from a tall downtown building, in a setback for Gaddafi loyalists who had controlled the city center. The rebels have defended positions around Misrata's seaport.

Kaim said the army has halted operations in Misrata since Friday, as part of the attempt of tribal leaders to negotiate an exit deal for the rebels.

However, residents reported heavy fighting, shelling and explosions in the east and south of Misrata and doctors said Saturday was one of the bloodiest days in weeks.

At least 24 people were killed and 75 were wounded, many of them critically, said a doctor at a Misrata hospital who asked to be identified only by his first name because he was afraid of government retribution. He said that hospital officials who feared a strong attack on Saturday had moved out some patients a day earlier to make way for more casualties.

Kaim said the tribal chiefs are determined to put an end to the fighting, in part because it has blocked access to the Misrata seaport. "The leaders of the tribes are determined to find a solution to this problem within 48 hours," he said.

If negotiations fail, "the other option, which is still available for the leaders and the heads of the tribes is a military intervention to liberate Misrata," he said.

He said the six main tribes in the region can muster 60,000 armed men.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, an aid vessel carrying more than 500 evacuees , most of them foreign workers, arrived Sunday from Misrata.

The migrants had been stranded in makeshift camps near Misrata's port, some of them for four or five weeks, said Javier Cepero of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which sent the vessel.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people are still in the port area, awaiting evacuation, said Cepero. The Libyan Red Crescent is trying to provide the stranded workers with food and medical care, but sending aid is difficult because of the fighting, he said.

So far, the Red Cross has evacuated about 1,900 people in three boat trips and two more journeys are planned, he said. Other aid organizations have also evacuated people from Misrata by boat.