Libyan rebels rest along a street in Misurata, where their forces claimed… (Christophe Simon, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Misurata, Libya — Fighters loyal to Col. Moammar Kadafi fled their last position inside the western Libyan city of Misurata on Sunday morning, leaving the center of the besieged port community in the hands of rebels seeking to oust the longtime leader.
Kadafi's forces, however, continued to pound the city with indirect fire, sparking fears of the beginning of an intermittent campaign of artillery and cluster bomb attacks.
The victory came after bloody fighting to clear Kadafi's forces from their last major position, at the city's old main hospital. Up to 100 Kadafi soldiers were killed around the compound, rebels said, and others were surrounded in buildings.
The rebels here, allied with anti-Kadafi forces who have taken over much of the eastern coastal region of Libya, have lost hundreds of fighters in block-by-block battles. Although lacking in training and firepower, they have used their knowledge of the city to ambush and overwhelm Kadafi fighters, grabbing antiaircraft batteries, heavy machine guns and rockets. In the last two weeks, they have also managed at great cost to block Kadafi-held streets with sand trucks, often trapping the loyalist fighters.
"We are almost free," said rebel fighter Tareq Khalil Shihbani, who wore blue camouflage and toted an assault rifle. "This is most clear Kadafi couldn't win in classic combat. The only thing they have now is" rockets.
The turnaround in fighting was relatively sudden as the Kadafi soldiers fled their positions Thursday around the Tamim building, an eight-story office building in central Misurata with a view over the city.
Still, the toll for the opposition has been high as loyalist snipers and artillery batteries pinpointed rebel positions, killing several field commanders with battle names like "the Ghost."
At the rebel-controlled Hikma hospital, fighters wept in the hallways over the weekend, leaning their heads against the wall, keening and moaning over their losses.
Shihbani said the rebels on Saturday captured at least 15 Kadafi soldiers at one of their last strongholds, the city's vegetable market, and were now bracing for the Libyan leader to keep hitting them with long-range artillery and rocket fire.
Kadafi's government has said that it is turning the battle for Misurata over to loyal tribes, but there are few indications that he will be able to amass large enough numbers to retake the city without employing his regular army. The departure amounts to a major triumph for the rebels, whose ranks consist largely of lawyers, bankers, students and engineers, with little history as soldiers before they joined an uprising in late February against his four-decade rule.
In addition to the human cost, the streets of Misurata are decimated. The major downtown office building, which had been a Kadafi sniper's nest, sat blackened, its ground floor bank an empty husk with smashed windows and the burnt remains of an ATM. A blown-off turret lay 100 meters from its charred brown tank, flung like a discus.
Up the road, the city's vegetable market was also burned, with men in yellow rain jackets and goggles walking through the rows of charred stalls, some still in flames from fighting that ended Saturday afternoon. They picked up bodies of Kadafi fighters, some of whom apparently had been dead for more than 30 days, and wrapped them in green plastic sheets.
The neighboring homes had crater-like holes. Up a crumbling staircase, medics nearly stepped on a tube of explosives and found a Kadafi fighter's body buried in a heap of dirt. Nearby was a refrigerator with eggs and orange soda.
The team waited for an explosives expert to check whether the body was rigged with bombs. They worried about incoming fire and tensed at the sound of explosions in the distance.
Elsewhere, fighters stood in a sandy alley of pockmarked walls, and a soft green villa where a Grad rocket had torn a hole that morning.
Suddenly an explosion went off, and a group of men started to run. The blasts reverberated like a giant's footsteps. Men dived for cover and breathed heavily, waiting.
Rijab Hadad, a rebel fighter in a bandanna the colors of the pre-Kadafi flag, stood up after the danger was apparently over. "The only thing they have now is Grad [rockets]," said Hadad, in front of his pickup truck, its top ripped off to make it easier to fire at loyalist fighters.
Hadad, who wore a shirt with the words "Diva Party" in blue-and-silver block letters, drove through the carnage, worrying what damage Kadafi would be able to wreak now.