Gaddafi hammers Misrata frontline after UK Apache helicopters strike

British Apache helicopters attacked positions belonging to the forces of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi around the west Libyan city of Misrata for the first time late Thursday, striking a communications installation and rocket launchers.

As the Apaches were deployed from HMS Ocean off the Libyan coast, Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon aircraft also destroyed regime battle tanks outside Zletan, the biggest town between Misrata and Tripoli, the Ministry of Defence said.

Across the country Nato bombs hit 14 targets yesterday.

On the ground in Misrata on Thursday night, morale had been high among rebel fighters as news came of protests breaking out in Zletan - the catalyst for a planned advance on the town, Misrata rebels said. As news came of attacks on Col Gaddafi vehicles, rebels at Radio Misrata whooped and invited reporters to join them on the road west.

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But yesterday morning, as Misrata citizens put on their robes for Friday prayers, the dictator hit back. In what appeared to be retaliation for Nato airstrikes, and rebel attacks, Col Gaddafi's forces launched a brutal strike on the western front at Dafnya.

The ground reverberated in the city centre as Grad rockets fell 21 miles away. The front was pounded with everything the regime could muster. "He was using mortars, tanks, Grad rockets. We could hear Nato in the skies but they didn't bomb them," said wounded fighter Faisal Taragha, 23, his eyes glazed, still in shock.

"Gaddafi attacked because there is movement in (the next town of] Zletan. He is trying to prevent the people in Misrata reaching them," said Faisal Taragha, 23. "Three of my friends have been killed today, but for every one that dies, ten more will come to fight."

The shelling reached the field clinic near the front line. As the rockets fell, doctors worked tirelessly to save the wounded. Rebel fighters came in horrifically injured. Many died.

At Higma hospital in central Misrata families received news that their loved ones had died. Bodies lay on bloodstained trollies in the corridors; relatives, lost in grief, clutched the corpses. In a side room lay five other bodies, wrapped in green cloth and labelled. A chorus of "God is the only God" punctuated the scene every few minutes as families took the corpses away.

An elderly lady collapsed, screaming at being told her son had just died. Men tried to hold back tears, hugging each other. A boy fell to his knees and sobbed at the sight of his dead brother.

By late afternoon the body count had hit 30, with 120 injured. "All the hospitals are busy. He is trying to kill us as much as he can. This is power. He has no philosophy, just brutality," said Dr Khaled Abu Falgha.After nearly three months of siege, and weeks of front-line fighting, the strain was visible. "We now have many insomniacs, often you see the doctors wondering around at five o'clock in the morning, or sitting outside waiting for they don't know what," said Dr Ahmed Radwan.