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Kadafi forces hem in Misurata

Residents of the coastal city say Kadafi has imposed a sea, air and land blockade, with soldiers stationed on three sides. Doctors say they are running out of medicines for civilian patients.

March 14, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Meris Lutz, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Beirut — Misurata is a picturesque seaside enclave with a reputation as Libya's wealthiest and most educated city. It also is one of the most prominent of the rebel-held territories in a country split into regions controlled by dictator Moammar Kadafi and a nascent opposition based in Benghazi.

Now, say numerous residents reached by telephone, Misurata is subject to an air, road and naval blockade and occasionally intense barrages of artillery meant to dislodge the rebel government and its supporters. The flow of medical supplies has been cut off. Farmers are unable to bring produce to the market for fear of snipers shooting them in their fields.

"We are under siege," said Salah Abdelaziz, an engineer who serves on one of the provisional committees governing the city. "We are surrounded from the west and the east by the Kadafi forces. We are in control of the port, but the sea is controlled by Kadafi and he is not allowing food or medicine to come in the port or supplies for the hospital."

Despite tough talk by the U.S. and France, the international community so far is moving slowly to take any steps against Kadafi's forces, which are racing to crush a weeks-long rebellion across Libya. A four-person United Nations team arrived in Tripoli, the capital, on Saturday to begin evaluating the country's humanitarian situation. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday banned Kadafi, his associates, cousins, seven sons and daughter from entering Russia, once a lifeline of military support for the regime. The Kremlin also prohibited the 15 Libyans listed from conducting financial affairs in Russia.

Doctors reached at Misurata's central hospital said at least 60 people had been killed and 570 hospitalized in the fighting, with victims ranging in age from 2 to 75. The hospital is suffering a shortage of medicines to treat the city's cancer and diabetes patients, and many of the hospital's expatriate nurses have fled the country. Staff members have taken to living at the hospital to treat patients arriving around the clock at the emergency room.

"We have no milk for children and there is a major shortage of anesthetic drugs for operating," said a hospital spokesman, who asked that his name not be published. "I don't know how long we can last in this situation, but we are calling on the international community to help. These are civilians."

None of the statements about conditions in the city could be independently verified. Kadafi's forces have drastically restricted access to Misurata, detaining any journalist who attempts to approach the city. Col. Milad Hussein, a spokesman for the armed forces, described Misurata as being controlled by gangs.

It remains uncertain whether Kadafi will attempt to crush the rebellion in Misurata — as forces did last week in the opposition-held western city of Zawiya, though there were unconfirmed reports of fresh fighting Monday — or deal first with the rebel-held stronghold of Benghazi in the east and let Misurata wither on the vine.

Misurata has emerged as a microcosm of the uprising that has shaken this country of nearly 7 million. Its inhabitants rose up against Kadafi last month, seizing control of the city.

They set up an interim commission of lawyers headed by a judge to lead the city. They have pledged loyalty to the opposition government in Benghazi. Citizens formed committees addressing different needs, including social problems, food and medicine.

Rebel spokesman Abdel Basset described a ring of Kadafi's fighters around the southern, eastern and western edges of the city with a wide-open no-man's land between the rebel and regime lines. Other witnesses said the government forces had taken up positions six to 12 miles from the center of Misurata and were shelling the city, occasionally striking homes.

"We are just trying to keep the army outside the city," said Mohammad, a 34-year-old university professor, who provided only his first name. "Sometimes we are hit with very heavy bombing, sometimes we are hiding at home, sometimes hiding outside because we are afraid of an air attack. "

Basset said four soldiers had defected to the opposition in recent days. Others said 13 soldiers had crossed enemy lines to join the rebels.

"We started a peaceful revolution and he changed it to a military battle," Abdelaziz, the engineer, said of Kadafi. "We are getting stronger. We are getting weapons. Nobody thinks Misurata will be under the control of Kadafi unless all people die."

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Daragahi reported from Tripoli and special correspondent Lutz from Beirut. Staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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