Shell-shocked city resists Gaddafi onslaught

By Dario Thuburn, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 01 2011 02:04 AM | Updated as of Apr 01 2011 10:04 AM

MISRATA, Libya - They're fighting house by house in the bombed-out streets of central Misrata, Libya's third largest city, which has held out against a relentless siege by Moammar Gaddafi's forces.

"Kadhafi is killing us," shouted one opposition fighter in a ragged uniform and a blue beret, as artillery fire blasted nearby. Tank and rocket explosions echoed around the shuttered shops, the homes and mosques of the city centre.

Fighters spoke excitedly at a local school converted into a gun factory about how they have held off government forces for more than 40 days despite being surrounded by territory held by Kadhafi in western Libya.

But in the city centre they treaded carefully amid the burnt-out cars.

The colours of the Libyan monarchy -- ousted by Gaddafi in a 1969 coup -- could be seen painted on billboards in opposition-held eastern and northern areas of the city dotted with improvised checkpoints and roadblocks.

At some checkpoints, a flash of the "V" for victory sign used by the fighters is enough. At others, drivers are questioned on who their friends and family are by gun-toting teenagers wrapped in scarves against the desert wind.

An estimated 200 people have been confirmed killed in the fighting so far, and in a tent set up in the car park of a small local hospital to treat the overflow of patients injured by shrapnel and sniper fire, doctors are jumpy.

"We aren't safe here. Yesterday there were two bombs. We're forced to sleep here," said Ali El Misrati, 27, a junior doctor from the local medical school who has worked in the city since the fighting began more than 40 days ago.

Doctors say between 50 and 70 patients are brought in every day. Three out of four are civilians and between five and 15 die each day in the hospital.

"Ten days ago they brought in an eight-month-old baby with gunshot wounds. We are all men here but we couldn't stop crying," said Hakim Zaggut, 38, a dentist who has been performing many operations because of a lack of staff.

"Who shoots an eight-month old baby? These are animals," he said.

Viktoriya, a Ukrainian nurse working at the clinic, said: "Of course it's frightening. But I can't abandon these people. These are like our children."

Two young boys lay in bandages in one ward after being hit by a mortar round and one man was in a coma with a gunshot wound to the head.

The conflict has displaced thousands of people from outlying areas of the extended city of some 500,000 people. They are housed in homes where three or four families now live crammed together or put up in schools.

"They were using my land to put in tanks and launch rockets from that area," said one farmer forced to flee from his home and who now sleeps in a primary school.

A Moroccan woman said: "I was a cleaner but the owner of the house was with Kadhafi. They threw me out today with my husband and two children."

The only visible sign of Kadhafi's regime on the streets is the green and white paint on shop blinds -- a tribute to the green of the official Libyan flag.

Graffiti scrawled on the walls read: "Victory or Death" and "Freedom!"

A banner across a street reads: "The passage of traitors is prohibited." Palm trees and piles of sand have been placed across parts of roads to slow the traffic. "That way we can shoot the traitors more easily," said one fighter.

In a house on the dunes, five Libyan journalists sit around typing on their laptops, transmitting with a giant satellite dish in the courtyard and watching the latest news on events in Libya on Al-Jazeera.

This is the nascent independent media movement in Misrata, 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, which now includes three radio stations including one that reaches outside Libya.

They have plans to start doing some broadcasts in English and French.

Mohammed, a former state television journalist who helped set up the radio station Free Libya said: "I was working in Tripoli. I had a good job there. But I came to help. This is my town, these are my people.

"Our people, they know what happened, our situation, but they cannot do anything because they are very afraid of Gaddafi. They know what Kadhafi can do to them. They try to hide their emotions under Gaddafi's lies."