- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

MISRATA, Libya (AP) — Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces shelled the port of this besieged rebel city in western Libya on Wednesday, killing a woman, a man and two children as an international aid ship was docking, a medical official said.

Meanwhile, along Libya’s western border with Tunisia, Col. Gadhafi’s troops bombed a rebel town and a key supply route, part of a push to crush stubborn resistance in the mountains, while France said international military intervention in the country must end as quickly as possible.

The ferry, chartered by the International Organization for Migration to evacuate almost 1,000 migrant workers, spent three nights outside Misrata waiting to come into port. Last week, Col. Gadhafi’s forces were caught mining the harbor entrance, and the Red Star One was guided in by a tugboat to avoid the mines.

Mahdi Bensasi of the Libyan Red Crescent said the four people killed were in a migrant camp near the port.

Two other rocket attacks struck the port earlier this week.

This city of 300,000 is the biggest rebel stronghold in western Libya, an area largely controlled by Col. Gadhafi. The rebels have been holding most of the east of the country.

Misrata has been under siege by land for more than two months. Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim confirmed late Tuesday that the regime is trying to cut off the city’s access to the sea — its final lifeline.

“There was an announcement from the Libyan government, the Ministry of Transportation, that Misrata port is closed and that any foreign ship or vessel would be targeted by the Libyan armed forces,” Mr. Kaim said when asked about attempts by the regime on Friday to lay anti-ship mines along the access route to Misrata’s port.

Two of the mines were destroyed, but a third floated away, and NATO vessels have been searching for it. The attempted mining has disrupted the delivery of desperately needed supplies to the beleaguered city.

NATO bombing raids largely have blocked Col. Gadhafi’s troops from advancing eastward, and the heaviest battles are being fought in the west, where rebels are holding positions in the coastal city of Misrata and in the Nafusa mountain range on the border.

Regime loyalists fired about 40 Grad rockets at the town of Zintan in the mountainous region home to Libya’s ethnic Berber community late Tuesday and early Wednesday, said Khaled Aburaqiqa, a spokesman for the community.

No one was hurt by the shelling, but six people from Zintan were killed in fighting on Monday and Tuesday, he said, adding that almost 100 people have been killed in Zintan, a town of about 45,000, since it rose up against Col. Gadhafi at the start of the revolt.

Supplies reach Zintan only intermittently, depending on when rebel fighters are able to push Col. Gadhafi’s forces back long enough to allow shipments to come in, Mr. Aburaqiqa said. So far, however, people are not going hungry and are surviving on staples, but there is a shortage of medical supplies, including surgical equipment.

Last month, rebel fighters in the area scored a breakthrough when they managed to take control of the Dhuheiba crossing between Libya and Tunisia. The crossing serves as a key supply route, but the road from the crossing to the Nafusa mountain area repeatedly has been shelled by Col. Gadhafi’s forces, including on Wednesday, the spokesman said.

 

The fighting in Libya largely has been locked in a stalemate. NATO commanders have said they have made good progress in eroding the Col. Gadhafi’s military capabilities, but leading French and Italian politicians said this  week that the international involvement should not be open-ended.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said it’s not the aim of the international bombing campaign in Libya to kill Col. Gadhafi. He spoke after a NATO airstrike over the weekend destroyed most of Col. Gadhafi’s family compound, prompting Libyan accusations that the alliance is trying to assassinate the Libyan leader.

Libyan officials said Col. Gadhafi was in the targeted building and survived unharmed, while one of his sons and three grandchildren were killed. The Libyan leader has not made a public appearance since then, but CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told NBC News on Tuesday that he believes Col. Gadhafi is still alive.

The international community stepped into the fighting in Libya in mid-March, a month after Col. Gadhafi tried to crush an uprising against him. The rebels now control much of the east, while Col. Gadhafi holds most of the west of the country.

Mr. Juppe, the French foreign minister, said military intervention must end as quickly as possible. The international mission’s goal “is not to kill Gadhafi, that is clear; our goal is to take away his means of continuing his repression against the civilian population.”

Mr. Juppe spoke on France 24 TV on Wednesday on the eve of an international conference in Rome for countries involved in the Libya campaign, aimed in part at drumming up financial support for the rebels.

On Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy would seek an end date for NATO’s Libya operations, as Premier Silvio Berlusconi sought to placate a key government partner opposed to Italian participation in bombing missions.

Government officials quickly offered reassurances that Italy was fully committed to its role in the NATO operation. They suggested Mr. Frattini’s comments reflected a reality that allies eventually need to discuss mission sustainability.

Associated Press writer Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this article.