Libya: Gaddafi's forces turn screw in the battle for Misrata

HOURS after the first wave of coalition airstrikes, the bitter battle for control of the rebel-held city of Misrata continued.

Shortly before the Gaddafi regime claimed it had ordered a ceasefire, government forces entered the city - the last held by rebels in the west of Libya - with tanks and stationed snipers on roofs in a bid to take control.

Reports warned of heavy casualties and horrific injuries as troops shelled homes and businesses, while residents also claimed government boats were circling the port, preventing aid from reaching the city.

News of the invasion came just hours after about 20 air-defence sites in Misrata - and the Libyan capital Tripoli - were battered by air strikes from French jets. The jets began a second night of patrolling Libyan airspace to enforce a no-fly zone.

Abdelbasset, a spokesman for the rebels in Misrata, said the number of rebel casualties was rapidly growing.

"There is fighting between the rebels and Gaddafi's forces," he said. "Their tanks are in the centre of Misrata ... There are so many casualties we cannot count them."

One resident, called Sami, said snipers killed two people in the port yesterday.

"They (snipers] are still on the rooftops. They are backed with four tanks, which have been patrolling the town. It's getting very difficult for people to come out," he said. There are also boats encircling the port and preventing aid from reaching the town."

Dr Khalid Abufalgha, who works at Misrata's main hospital, pleaded for help: "The international community has to come to protect the civilians," he said. "Yesterday, I have 25, today, since morning I have three and they are coming. They are amputations ... severe injuries, crushing - I don't know what they are using but please, come and protect the civilians - babies, women, all the civilians that is coming here, they have no ... water, no food."

Residents in Misrata claimed that Gaddafi forces were shelling homes "with some force".

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Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi al-Warfali said he had been told that Misrata had come under heavy shelling from Gaddafi forces.

"Misrata is the only city in western Libya not under Gaddafi's control; he is trying hard to change its position," he said.

Civil servant Khalid al-Ghurfaly, 38, said he feared civilians would suffer in retaliation against the Western attacks, which hit an air force complex outside the town.

Gaddafi forces have bombarded Misrata from the complex, which houses a base and a military academy.

"We salute France, Britain, the United States and the Arab countries for standing with Libya," he said. "But we think Gaddafi will take out his anger on civilians. So the West has to hit him hard," he said.

On a strategic road in east Libya, heading towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Colonel Gaddafi's wrecked tanks and other army vehicles smouldered. The strike appeared to have taken forces by surprise, putting a dramatic halt to the advance towards the city.

Bodies littered the roadside, while about 14 Gaddafi tanks, 20 armoured personnel carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick-ups had all been destroyed.

One tank was a blackened wreck with its turret blown off. Another tank, a tank transporter and armoured personnel carriers smouldered.

A few hundred metres ahead, munitions were still exploding as flames licked around vehicles.

The attack gave rebels, who had been driven back to their stronghold of Benghazi by the Libyan leader's air, sea and land offensive in the past two weeks, the chance to return to the town of Ajdabiyah - the hard fought over gateway to the east.

Rebels, who have mainly relied on 4x4 pick-ups with machine guns, were heavily outgunned by Colonel Gaddafi 's forces before the airstrikes.

Pharmacist Mohamed Joma said the planes had struck about 4am that day.

"Look, the tanks were pointing to Benghazi," he said. "They wanted to go to Benghazi. They did not escape."

Agricultural worker Jamal al-Majbouri, who owns a farm nearby, showed no sympathy for the Gaddafi forces.

"Tell the West to destroy Gaddafi slowly, piece by piece by piece, the way he did to us for 40 years," he said.