AJDABIYA, Apr 17 – Libyan government forces pounded rebels with heavy artillery west of Ajdabiya on Sunday, forcing hundreds of residents and some rebel fighters to flee the key crossroads town.
The intense shelling came a day after at least eight people were killed and 27 wounded as the forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi fired rockets at rebel positions, hospital officials said.
"Kadhafi\’s forces approached the city, they bombed the western gate. The sound of the guns are coming closer, that\’s why many are leaving," said Omar Salim Mufta, a 27-year-old resident rebel supporter who has not taken up arms.
Another civilian, 48-year-old Milud Ghait, appealed for NATO forces to carry out air strikes on the area as about a dozen pickup trucks carrying rebel fighters left the eastern town.
"Gaddafi\’s forces are on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya, but NATO is doing nothing. Where is NATO? What are the French, British and Americans doing?" he asked.
It was not immediately clear if there were casualties from Sunday\’s shelling whose range is about 20 kilometres (12.5 miles), suggesting pro-Gaddafi forces were within that distance of Ajdabiya.
"They are about 20 kilometres away. They are firing at us with Grad rockets," said Kemal Abdel Mohammed Abdel, 24, a rebel returning from the front line.
The ragtag rebel fighters had previously appeard set to move on Brega, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Ajdabiya, with some correspondents reporting they were on the outskirts of the strategic oil town.
In the besieged western bastion of Misrata, meanwhile, rebels said they mounted successful raids on Gaddafi\’s troops in the city.
Smoke billowed over the centre of Misrata, which a witness said was from a destroyed regime tank, as the rebels claimed to have taken out several pro-Kadhafi snipers along the port city\’s main avenue, Tripoli Street.
On the diplomatic front, the New York Times reported US President Barack Obama\’s administration has launched an intense search for a country, likely in Africa, that could provide refuge to Gaddafi.
But amid looming indictments against Kadhafi by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the atrocities committed against his own people during the ongoing conflict and for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, US officials only have a narrow list of potential host countries.
On Saturday, France said a new UN resolution to push Kadhafi into quitting was unnecessary, and Germany suggested frozen Libyan funds be diverted to the United Nations to pay for aid to victims of the conflict.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had said its researchers reported the use of internationally banned cluster munitions against Misrata.
But a spokesman for the Libyan regime denied the accusations.
"Absolutely no. We can\’t do this. Morally, legally we can\’t do this," Mussa Ibrahim told journalists. "We never do it. We challenge them to prove it."
Cluster bombs explode in the air and scatter deadly, armour-piercing submunitions over a wide area.
Hazam Abu Zaid, a Misrata resident who has taken up arms to defend his neighbourhood, said the bomblets fell from the sky "like rain" overnight between Friday and Saturday.
A New York Times team first reported the use of the cluster munitions, photographing MAT-120 mortar rounds it said were produced in Spain.
"It\’s appalling that Libya is using this weapon, especially in a residential area," said Steve Goose, HRW\’s arms division director.
On Saturday, loud blasts rocked Misrata accompanied by bursts of gunfire heard from the centre of the city whose dairy was bombed and still ablaze in the afternoon, an AFP correspondent said.
"They are trying to starve us to death, attacking the dairy, the water purification plant," said Jiraal, a Libyan who had returned from England to join the rebels.
Six people were killed and 31 wounded in Misrata, a similar number to Friday\’s casualty figures.
In Paris, aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had evacuated 99 people, including 64 war-wounded, by boat from Misrata on Friday to Tunisia.
Speaking of the dire conditions in the city, under siege for weeks, MSF doctor Morten Rostrup noted health structures were struggling to cope with the heavy inflow of patients.
"With the latest heavy bombardments in Misrata, the situation is worsening, as hospitals have to discharge patients before their treatment is completed in order to treat the new wounded from fighting," he added.
Tens of thousands of migrants have already fled Libya since the rebellion erupted in mid-February.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Saturday a new UN resolution to push Gaddafi into quitting was unnecessary.
"We think that given his behaviour, his savage repression of the population, Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy to stay in power," Juppe said.
"That is the view of the United States, of Great Britain, of the 27 member states of the European Union, of the Arab League, and there is no need for a new Security Council resolution to enact this principle."
German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle has suggested frozen Libyan funds should be diverted to the United Nations to pay for aid to victims of the conflict.
In Berlin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appealed for an immediate ceasefire and for the warring parties to be brought to the negotiating table.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 calls for a ceasefire, but Gaddafi has relentlessly pursued his campaign to retake territory lost to the rebels.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied the air strikes were beyond the scope of the UN resolution.
Meanwhile, the European Union and NATO deepened their coordination for a potential EU military mission to deliver urgent humanitarian aid to Misrata, diplomats said.
The International Organisation for Migration said about 1,200 migrants have been evacuated from Misrata to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Most were Bangladeshis and Egyptians.