- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

ABOARD THE RED STAR 1 (AP) — Libyan government forces on Tuesday bombarded the port of Misrata, the sole lifeline of a battered population that has been under siege from all sides for the past two months.

While government forces pulled out of the city over the weekend under pressure from NATO airstrikes, they since have unleashed a heavy bombardment of Misrata, the only major western city in rebel hands, that has killed dozens.

“It was horrific, like a scene from World War II,” said resident Saddoun el-Misurati, who was waiting to evacuate his mother from the port when the rockets began to fall. “I stopped counting after nine.”

Hundreds of residents, including migrant African laborers, were waiting at the port for the expected afternoon arrival of the Red Star 1, an Albanian ship chartered by the International Organization of Migration to evacuate people from the besieged city.

Everyone scrambled for cover when the rockets began falling, hiding in cars and shipping crates or just fleeing the port area, Mr. el-Misurati said.

The Libyan government has denied that it engages in indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers.

It is precisely to protect civilians that a campaign of airstrikes began March 19 against the forces of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who were seeking to retake parts of the country lost to a rebel uprising that began in mid-February.

Much of the east of the country is now in rebel hands, along with a scattering of mountain towns on the western border and Misrata itself, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.

On Monday, NATO bombs slammed into a building in Col. Gadhafi’s official residence in Tripoli, in what the government maintained was an assassination attempt.

The NATO operation’s commander, Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said Tuesday that the attack on the Bab al-Aziziya complex was aimed at an army command center and that he doubted Col. Gadhafi was in the building.

“This is about bringing an end to the violence and shaping an environment for dialogue and diplomacy,” he said.

Britain’s top diplomat, however, cautioned that NATO and its allies in Libya should prepare for a lengthy operation. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Britain’s Cabinet they must be ready for the “long haul” in Libya, according to a spokeswoman for the prime minister.

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