Pounded by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces for nearly 50 days, the largest rebel-held city in western Libya has become a symbol, a coveted prize in a civil war gripped in a bloody stalemate.
Libyan army tanks and snipers battered Misurata again on Thursday, as rebels claimed NATO airstrikes in another part of Libya hit their forces in the second accidental attack in a week and as Turkey proposed a peace plan.
“If Misurata falls to the regime, Gadhafi will feel that he has strengthened his bargaining position,” Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in Misurata whose full name has been withheld out of concern for his safety, told The Washington Times on Thursday.
“Misurata’s fight will define the unity of Libya,” he added.
“If we fail, Libya will be divided. If we succeed, Libya will never be divided.”
Residents of the city, located on the Mediterranean coast 130 miles east of Tripoli, have endured siegelike conditions since early February. During the last four weeks, pro-Gadhafi forces battered the city with tanks and snipers to inflict heavy casualties on civilians and poorly armed rebels, opposition sources said.
The rebels still hold most of the city of 300,000, but Col Gadhafi’s forces control a main road into Misurata and the center of town, according to rebel sources. They said more than 1,000 rebels have been killed and as many as 2,300 injured.
For Col. Gadhafi, winning back Misurata would mean complete domination over the west of Libya. And for the rebels, a victory would provide a much-needed boost to morale.
Col. Gadhafi’s advisers last month recommended the dictator seize Misurata and then partition the country. He would retain control of the west with Tripoli as its capital, and the opposition would get the east with Benghazi as its capital, according to rebel sources.
In Washington, Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led the mission in Libya until NATO took over last week, described the conflict as a stalemate.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Ham also warned against providing arms to the rebels without “a better understanding of exactly who the opposition force is.”
“My recommendation would be, we should know more about who they are before we make any determination to arm them,” he said.
Aid volunteers from Britain and Canada, who have been ferrying supplies to Misurata, described acute shortages of drinking water, medicine and food.
They began their mission by delivering medicine and baby formula.
“Now the situation is very bad,” said Munir, a member of the team who spoke to The Times from Malta.
“At the beginning, they only wanted baby formula and medicine, but now they want everything. We are even sending water.”
The sea journey to Misurata has been perilous. Earlier this week, shells from pro-Gadhafi forces landed close to the boat.
“There was shooting everywhere,” Munir said.
Pro-Gadhafi forces have evicted more than 10,000 families from their homes and detained young men in some parts of Misurata, according to the rebels.
In interviews with The Times, rebels implored NATO to attack pro-Gadhafi forces inside Misurata, but NATO says it fears civilians casualties.
“The U.N. mandate is to protect civilians. As we speak, civilians in Misurata are being killed, evicted from their homes, and now we hear reports of rape in the outskirts,” said Mohamed.
Mohamed was forced to cut short an interview earlier this week as loud explosions went off outside his room.
“The suffering and destruction just goes on. It really is a wonder that Misurata is still holding up,” he said as he left.
Elsewhere in Libya, opposition sources said, NATO killed five rebels and injured 20 near the eastern port city of Brega. On Thursday, NATO war planes killed 13 rebels in eastern Libya in what one opposition leader called “an unfortunate accident.”
In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a peace plan that would require Col. Gadhafi to withdraw from besieged cities, establish humanitarian corridors for relief aid and endorse a “comprehensive democratic-change process.”
Guma el-Gamaty, coordinator for the rebels’ Britain-based Interim National Transitional Council, told The Times that if the Turkish proposal means “Col. Gadhafi and his sons are part of the process and plan, then it will not be considered or accepted.”