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Libyan civilian casualties rise in Misurata

The doctors rushed through a white outdoor tent where several pale, bloodied men were being operated on. Inside the Hikma hospital, it was a similar scene.

One patient, blood dripping from his mouth, was being propped up by two companions. Nearby rooms were packed with seemingly catatonic men, their faces swollen and bruised.

Seventeen people had died Sunday in Misurata, the doctors said, many of them victims of rocket attacks from government forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. The doctors called it a relatively quiet day, with no roaring battles.

Still, the civilian death toll had increased once more in this besieged, rebel-held western Libyan city, which has been attacked repeatedly by Kadafi's forces for much of the two months since protests began against his ruthless four-decade rule.

The misery in Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, has become symbolic of the war between Kadafi loyalists and rebel forces, who have established their de facto capital in the eastern city of Benghazi.

If the rebels keep Misurata, they hold the major port in western Libya and block the leading coastal highway connecting the nation's capital, Tripoli, with Kadafi's home region of Surt. A rebel-held Misurata thwarts any chance for Kadafi to cling to power by pushing for a future partition between eastern and western Libya.

Yet despite international airstrikes to protect civilians from Kadafi's forces, the fighting in Misurata continues, a war of attrition with painful costs for the city's residents and migrant workers who have been unable to flee.

Rockets and sniper fire from Kadafi's forces have pounded the city. The locals accuse Kadafi loyalists of lobbing cluster bombs.

On Sunday, more than 50 Libyan families blocked the road to the port demanding they be evacuated along with 900 migrant workers, no longer able to take the daily mayhem. The street by the port is called the road of death because of the unceasing rocket fire. Up to 40 people were killed waiting in a bread line near the port last week, according to residents.

Misurata officials said they understood the families' plight. "There are a growing number of people who'd like to [leave]," said rebel spokesman Saddoun Misrati.

International relief officials on a boat preparing to dock in Misurata on Sunday delayed its arrival for hours out of fear that pandemonium would erupt at the port among those seeking to flee.

International Organization for Migration official Jeremy Haslam, supervising the departure of migrant workers, said that the exodus is still largely one of foreigners, but that could change at any moment.

"Everyone has their breaking point, their trigger that makes them say this is enough," he said.

At night, the electricity is cut, and streets are pitch black. Incoming rockets momentarily light the roads, followed by deadening booms.

One man driving through the streets late Sunday called Misurata "the city of the dead." Another worried aloud what would happen if too many residents flee. "If we leave, then there is no one to protect the town," said Ali Hanousi.

Every few blocks, groups of men, many in their early 20s, manned checkpoints, searching cars for suspected Kadafi loyalists.

Some got through anyway. At 6 p.m., a car rushed by the Hikma hospital, spraying gunfire before speeding off.

Inside, the doctors ignored the bullets and kept working on the severely wounded.

Dr. Khalid Abu Falgha, the head of the hospital, grieved for a 4-year-old girl who had been killed by a sniper Sunday. "This is one of the hardest days I've seen," he said.

Falgha estimated that in the last two months, 1,000 people have died in the port city and an additional 3,000 have been wounded. The use of cluster bombs began a week ago, he said, adding that he wished the West would offer more help.

Despite the U.N. resolution authorizing action to protect civilians a month ago, he believed the situation had only worsened in Misurata. "Until now every day I see civilians dying," he said. "After Resolution 1973, the shelling became more intense."

In the emergency care unit, seven patients lay in two rooms. One was Mohammed Hassan Ali Naffer, 10, whose head was pierced by shrapnel. The others included a man who had lost a leg, and people who had been shot in the head and neck.

Echoes of death and the frustrating sense of stalemate were also evident Sunday in eastern Libya, where pro-government forces unleashed a barrage on the strategic city of Ajdabiya, on which rebels have a tenuous hold after a series of seesaw battles.

Optimistic talk from the previous day about a rebel advance back west into the oil refinery town of Brega dissipated amid the churning clouds of sand.

Retreating rebel fighters scattered along the coastal road in pickups outfitted with machine guns seemed dispirited and jittery, repeating rumors of an impending blitz by pro-government "mercenary" forces from Algeria and elsewhere. Some stared intently at the road behind them, appearing to expect that an onslaught would momentarily emerge from the blinding clouds of fine sand.

On Sunday, rebel commanders said, Kadafi's forces were able to take advantage of the sandstorms — providing presumed cover from NATO airstrikes — to move within striking distance of Ajdabiya. The largely abandoned and heavily damaged city is situated between Benghazi and Brega, the oil refinery town where Kadafi's dug-in forces have repulsed opposition attacks after having retaken it recently. There was no official word on injuries in the latest barrage.

Heading west from Benghazi, the burned-out hulks of tanks and armored vehicles — reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's decimated units along the road to Baghdad in 2003 — attest to the potency of Western airpower. There is widespread agreement that the air assault on Kadafi's forces as they approached Benghazi probably saved the city from being overrun.

Since then, however, each side has found it difficult to consolidate gains — and casualties mount daily.

"They were young men who fought for freedom," Ahmed Khalifa, 39, a farmer, said during a funeral in Benghazi for a pair of rebel friends killed near Brega. "Maybe I will be the next one: fighting in Brega or laid to rest here next to them."

ned.parker@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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