A Libyan rebel at a rally against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in Benghazi. (Bernat Armangue / Associated…)
Reporting from Misurata, Libya — Rebel fighters drove Moammar Kadafi's loyalist forces from all but one base in Misurata on Saturday and appeared to be on the verge of expelling all government troops from the besieged port city.
After furious street fighting, Kadafi's forces abandoned a college and a vegetable market that had been hubs for shelling the city. At least 24 rebel fighters were killed and 70 wounded, doctors at Misurata's Hikma hospital said.
But even if rebels push all Kadafi fighters from the city, Misurata would remain surrounded by the Libyan leader's security units. The government could bomb the city from its gates if NATO is not effective in cutting off Kadafi's supply lines.
To evade NATO attacks, Kadafi has used civilian cars to transport troops and supplies, but rebels believe that NATO bombing runs have weakened Kadafi's forces outside the city.
The battles Saturday were the culmination of the rebel fighters' strategy over the last month. They had sealed off Tripoli Street, the main commercial artery in Misurata, with sand-filled trucks to isolate Kadafi's fighters and starve them of supplies.
The strategy produced dividends as Kadafi's fighters first abandoned Tripoli Street's Tamim Life Insurance building Thursday. The Tamim building had been used to shower rockets, mortar rounds, gunfire and cluster bombs on central Misurata.
The port city rose up against Kadafi as part of a popular revolt in mid-February and has become a symbol of the struggle against the Libyan leader.
Early Saturday, government fighters quit the city's vegetable market and regrouped at the old main hospital on Tripoli Street, which was closed for renovations before the uprising began. At least 39 Kadafi loyalists were killed in the fighting, a doctor said.
Rebels also drove Kadafi's troops from the city's Technical Institute.
As evening fell Saturday, government forces were on the defensive at the old hospital. A rebel fighter, Akram Hamid, said it was feared that Kadafi's men were using human shields.
At Hikma hospital, meanwhile, at least two wounded Kadafi soldiers who were being treated gave accounts of poor morale after troops had practically run out of food and medical supplies. Others told doctors that their commanders had deserted them, saying they were going for ammunition but never coming back.
A rebel was cheered at Hikma hospital after he brought in a Kadafi fighter who he said had been shot in the leg by his commander after he refused to fight.
The number of wounded pushed Hikma hospital to its limit Saturday. A man whose legs had been blown off was rushed to the emergency room but died on the operating table. Relatives hugged the bodies of dead fighters, some of them wrapped in pre-Kadafi Libyan flags. A screaming little girl, wounded by a mortar blast, had shrapnel pulled from her forehead as her terrified parents watched.
The sight of newly liberated neighborhoods was eerie. Until the day before, they had been occupied by Kadafi's paramilitary forces. Outside the Technical Institute in east Misurata, buildings were burned and scarred by bullets. At one spot, rebels dug up two of their dead; they had been executed, their comrades said. The rebels fired their guns in the air as they loaded the bodies into a truck.
In the courtyard of an apartment complex, a charred tank was on its side. Sticks of explosives and unfinished bowls of rice had been left behind in many of the apartments and homes.
Hamid, the rebel, bragged that Kadafi's forces had been taught a lesson.
"They have suffered in Misurata," Hamid said. "God willing, this is almost over. They will be out of the city."
The Libyan deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said late Friday that NATO airstrikes had taken their toll on Kadafi's forces. His comments came after the United States announced the start of Predator drone operations to help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization effort.
Kaim said the government intends to let local tribesmen deal with Misurata.
Fighters like Hamid doubted that the Tripoli government could mobilize tribes against them, but he still worried about Kadafi's next step.
"Kadafi might have some other plans," Hamid said. "I've heard he is preparing more Grad rocket trucks from south Libya."