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Ship ferries Libyan wounded from besieged Misurata

Moammar Kadafi's soldiers have pummeled the country's third-largest city with daily rocket and tank fire. The aid vessel's passengers know they are lucky to have survived.

April 04, 2011|By Ned Parker and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Injured men rest inside a Turkish ship carrying wounded people from the besieged Libyan city of Misurata, at a port in Benghazi.
Injured men rest inside a Turkish ship carrying wounded people from the… (Youssef Boudial ? Reuters )

Reporting from Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya — The survivors lay on green cots Sunday in the musty halls of the Turkish ship that rescued them from the besieged western Libyan coastal city of Misurata.

Some looked like mummies, eyes bandaged, foreheads wrapped in gauze, legs braced after shrapnel had ripped through them. Others hobbled through the ship's halls on crutches, or with metal bolts in their shattered arms. A few wanly flashed their fingers in V-shaped victory signs.

The ambulatory moved to the deck of the white cruise ship as it docked for several hours in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi to take on board more injured civilians for the trip to Turkey. The Turkish ferry, refitted as a hospital for more than 200 wounded passengers, had waited off the Mediterranean coast for five days before being allowed into strife-torn Misurata.

Photos: A close call near the front line in Libya

The men on the deck yelled slogans laced with bravado, even as those in Benghazi's harbor wished desperately for better news from Misurata, which has been battered by tanks, snipers and antiaircraft guns from the forces of longtime Libyan ruler Moammar Kadafi. Inside the ship, those with broken arms and legs fidgeted and others in wheelchairs stared into space.

Unspoken was the knowledge the ship's passengers were lucky to have survived the rebels' lopsided fight against Kadafi. Each of the wounded men on board knew Misurata was still under attack and they might never see their home again. Their last memories of the city could be burned buildings and gaping shell holes, and the corpses of their friends.

Abdullah Sinusi, 18, sweated on a cot with a yellow-flowered blanket. His right thigh had been pierced by a sniper's bullet on Thursday as he tried to sneak back to the family house he and his father and uncles had abandoned a day earlier in the face of a tank assault. He wanted to see the house for his parents and tell them it wasn't badly damaged.

He walked the short distance from his grandparents' with a rifle in his hand, keeping close to the walls. Then he felt a sharp ache in his leg and collapsed. He screamed loudly, and his uncles heard the sound. They inched slowly, staying close to buildings, and dragged him away.

The young man now sat in the ship, near others like him, stuck in an army cot. One of his uncles had traveled with him.

Sinusi wanted desperately to believe that somehow the opposition movement in his city might triumph.

"Kadafi can't kill all the people," Sinusi said. "We have a feeling we will win because we are good. This is why God will help us."

For weeks, Kadafi's fighters have pummeled Misurata, the country's third-largest city, with daily barrages of rockets and tank fire. On Saturday, they struck the clinic that had been turned into an impromptu combat hospital. Patients had been removed from the facility days earlier after it came under mortar fire, said a pharmacist in the city reached via Skype.

On Sunday, Kadafi's forces launched Grad rockets at a fuel storage facility, the latest in a series of attempts to target Misurata's stockpiles of food and fuel.

"The shelling is continuing and the victims are more every day," said Tarek ben Esmail, a Misurata-born Libyan resident in Britain serving as an informal spokesman for the rebel-held city. "Kadafi's forces have done everything imaginable to make the lives miserable for people every day."

The Western-led coalition of nations has launched airstrikes against Kadafi's forces in an attempt to halt his attacks on civilian population centers in the country's rebel-held east and a few opposition enclaves including Misurata. But the conflict appears to have become locked in a stalemate with neither rebels nor Kadafi's forces able to gain the upper hand in the battlefield and allied airstrikes proving insufficient to either give opposition forces a decisive advantage or dislodge the regime in Tripoli.

Meanwhile, diplomats struggled to resolve the increasingly complicated conflict inspired by other uprisings sweeping the Middle East. A Libyan diplomat was in Athens on Sunday in an attempt to reach out to Western powers leading the military effort as a team of British diplomats arrived in Benghazi, news agencies reported.

On the international relief ship, one of two that reached Misurata's port and departed with wounded residents over the weekend, Dr. Faraj Ahmed, who had worked in Misurata's hospital, stood silently by the doorway to Sinusi's ward.

After weeks of treating the wounded, he couldn't pretend that this was just a short trip away from his city. He had seen more than 250 people killed in the last two weeks and more than 1,000 wounded. He had helped turn two small clinics into Misurata's main hospital for the wounded.

"Too many civilians have been killed in this war because Kadafi's forces are shelling their homes," the doctor said. "I hope I will return to Misurata and we will not see blood anymore."

But for now he prepared to remain on the voyage to Turkey. He gave instructions to orderlies and tried not to think about the fighting at home.

ned.parker@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writers Parker reported from Benghazi and Daragahi from Tripoli. Special correspondent Mohamed El Gadari in Benghazi contributed to this report.

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