MISRATA, Libya, May 8 – Intense fighting erupted Sunday near Misrata as smoke billowed from fuel depots bombed by Libyan regime forces laying siege to the lifeline port city where rebels awaited arms from Italy.
The fighting broke out in the resort area of Burgueya, west of Misrata, the North African country\’s third city about 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of Tripoli.
A thick plume of smoke spread over Misrata from blazing fuel depots bombed a day earlier, while long queues could be seen at fuel stations amid fears of shortages, an AFP correspondent said.
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi "destroyed the only tanks that were full," said Ahmad Monthasser, a rebel from Misrata.
"Someone pointed out the exact location of the fuel depots. This means inside the city there is a fifth column that is collaborating with Kadhafi," he said.
Government troops have intensified their attacks on the port of Misrata, the main source of supplies to rebels fighting to oust the veteran strongman in western Libya.
Misrata is seen as a make-or-break city in the Libyan conflict, which broke out in mid-February after Kadhafi\’s security forces waged a bloody crackdown on protests inspired by regime-changing movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
On Friday, Suleiman Fortiya, who represents rebels in Misrata, said they were bracing for a new ground assault on the port city.
"I am sure there will be a lot of fighting on the ground in the future. That is what Misrata is worried about because he (Kadhafi) is doing a big preparation to march on Misrata," he said.
On Saturday, Kadhafi\’s troops unleashed a salvo of Grad rockets on towns in Libya\’s western mountains near the border with Tunisia as it bombed Misrata\’s fuel depots.
At least nine rebels were killed and 50 wounded in fierce clashes in the northwestern town of Zintan as Kadhafi forces pressed the insurgents on several fronts.
The day before, Kadhafi\’s forces dropped mines into Misrata\’s harbour using small helicopters bearing the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the rebels said.
"It seems that the more desperate Kadhafi gets, the more he unleashes his firepower on the people," said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the opposition National Transitional Council.
A barrage of shells on Saturday struck Zintan and Wazin, western towns near the border with Tunisia, forcing 20,000 people to flee, said Ghoga, while loyalist fighters attacked the southern oasis towns of Ojla and Jalo, which neighbour oil facilities.
The towns were "heavily bombarded by Grad missiles," a rebel information officer told AFP, adding Kadhafi\’s troops were "firing randomly" and that overwhelmed rebels had pulled out of Wazin.
"The fighting was too heavy for them," he said.
Hundreds of regime troops backed by tanks had come to within 15 kilometres (nine miles) of Zintan\’s eastern edge Saturday morning before the insurgents drove them back twice as far to the Al-Aluwinia area.
It was there that the heaviest fighting took place throughout the day, as black smoke rose from the town virtually emptied of its population.
Kadhafi forces abandoned their vehicles as well as some prisoners.
The mountainous area of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, was one of the first to rise up against Kadhafi\’s regime in March. Rebels last month captured a border post there.
Ghoga said Kadhafi was under immense political and economic pressure from the world community and so was wreaking "havoc on the population, on the civilians and the cities."
Representatives of the international community have promised $250 million (175 million euros) in humanitarian aid to the rebels and said the Kadhafi regime\’s frozen overseas assets, estimated at $60 billion, would be used later to assist the Libyan opposition.
Unlocking Kadhafi\’s funds abroad would, however, pose "many difficulties" as the international resolutions freezing them remained in force, said Giorgio Sacerdoti, international law professor at the University of Bocconi in Milan.
"The government in Tripoli has not disappeared and the resolutions of the UN and the European Union do not say that he (Kadhafi) is illegitimate," he added.
The economic situation in rebel held areas, including Benghazi, is steadily worsening, with costs of basic commodities skyrocketing and the rebel administration facing shortage of funds as receipts from oil exports have come to a virtual halt.
"We are still discovering different segments that need to be paid, every single moment a new need arises," said Ali Torhuni, who manages the economic portfolio for the rebels.
Torhuni said the daily cost of administering the rebel-controlled east, including a partial payment of some salaries, adds up to $100 million.
By that estimate, the $250 million in humanitarian aid the interim body secured in Rome on Thursday, would last less than three days.
On Sunday, the rebels were waiting for arms to arrive from Italy, which Rome hastened to explain were "self-defence material" without any assault weapons.
Meanwhile, France, Britain and Italy have also put a small number of "boots on the ground" in the rebel-held east.
About 20 British advisers and 10 each from France and Italy were reportedly holed up in the rebel bastion of Benghazi and working with senior rebel commanders to turn a ragtag, poorly armed and badly trained force into a fighting machine.
The group is keeping a low profile amid fears the Libyan regime could use their presence as evidence the uprising was orchestrated by Western powers.