Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are staging a “massacre” in the besieged city of Misrata, evacuees said on Monday, as Turkey said it was trying to broker a ceasefire to halt the bloodshed.
With Libya in chaos as Gaddafi’s troops battle rebels, an official in neighbouring Algeria said al Qaeda was exploiting the conflict to acquire weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and smuggle them to a stronghold in northern Mali.
Evacuees from Misrata described the city as hell, with Gaddafi’s forces using tanks and snipers against residents, littering the streets with corpses and filling hospitals with the wounded.
“You have to visit Misrata to see the massacre by Gaddafi,” said Omar Boubaker, a 40-year-old engineer with a bullet wound to the leg, brought to the Tunisian port of Sfax by a French aid group. “Corpses are in the street. Hospitals are overflowing.”
Misrata, the last major rebel-held city in western Libya, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi in mid-February, and is now under attack by government troops.
“I could live or die, but I am thinking of my family and friends who are stranded in the hell of Misrata,” said tearful evacuee Abdullah Lacheeb, who had serious injuries to his pelvis and stomach and a bullet wound in his leg.
“Imagine, they use tanks against civilians. [Gaddafi] is prepared to kill everyone there … I am thinking of my family.”
Stalemate on the frontline of fighting in eastern Libya, defections from Gaddafi’s circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting, or facing food and fuel shortages, have prompted a flurry of diplomacy to try to end the civil war.
Turkey said it was seeking to broker a ceasefire as an envoy from Gaddafi’s government arrived in Ankara from Athens.
“Turkey will continue to do its best to end the sufferings and to contribute to the process of making a road map that includes the political demands of Libyan people,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said following the arrival of Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi.
Turkey was also in contact with the opposition’s national council, and expected representatives to visit Ankara “in the coming days”, Davutoglu told a news conference. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said both sides had “conveyed that they have some opinions about a possible ceasefire”.
Beyond a willingness to talk, there was no sign of what Libya might offer to end the war that is bogged down on a frontline around the eastern oil town of Brega.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who had spoken to Greek officials after Obeidi’s talks in Athens, dismissed the Libyan envoy’s message.
After a meeting with Ali Essawi, a member of the Libyan rebel council looking after foreign affairs, Frattini said Italy, a former colonial power in Libya, backed the rebels: “A solution for the future of Libya has a pre-condition — that Gaddafi’s regime leaves and is out and that Gaddafi himself and his family leave the country.”
He said an interim government headed by one of Gaddafi’s sons was “not an option”.
UN-mandated air strikes to protect civilians have so far failed to halt attacks in Misrata by the Libyan army.
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians in Misrata, saying they are fighting armed gangs linked to al Qaeda. Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified as Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from there.
A rebel spokesperson said the city had been shelled on Monday.
“The shelling started in the early hours of the morning and it’s continuing, using mortars and artillery. This is pure terrorism. The shelling is targeting residential areas,” the spokesman, called Gemal, told Reuters by telephone, adding: “We know there are casualties but I don’t know how many.”
A Turkish ship that sailed into Misrata to rescue 250 wounded was protected by Turkish warplanes and warships and had to leave in a hurry after thousands pressed forward on the dock, pleading to be evacuated. Another ship operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres docked in Sfax with 71 wounded from Misrata.
Al Qaeda convoy
In Algiers, a senior security official told Reuters that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamist group’s regional wing, was getting hold of weapons in Libya.
The Algerian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks left eastern Libya and headed via Chad and Niger to northern Mali, where in the past few days it had delivered a cargo of weapons.
“We know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing,” the official said. “Several military barracks have been pillaged in this region [eastern Libya] with their arsenals and weapons stores, and the elements of AQIM who were present could not have failed to profit from this opportunity.”
Gaddafi believes the uprising is fuelled by Islamist radicals and Western nations who want to control Libya’s oil. The rebels, whose stronghold is in the eastern city of Benghazi, want nothing less than the removal of Gaddafi and his circle.
The UN-mandated military intervention, in which warplanes have attacked Gaddafi’s armour, radar and air defences, began on March 19 and was intended to protect civilians caught up in fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels.
After chasing each other up and down the coast road linking the oil ports of eastern Libya with Gaddafi’s tribal heartland further west, the two sides are stuck around Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25km.
Rebels pushed the army out of much of Brega and towards the outskirts of the sprawling oil town on Monday in a slow advance west, but were still facing bombardment with each step.
Showing signs of greater organisation than in past weeks, the rebels moved more cautiously and held ground more stubbornly than before, despite facing better-equipped forces.
“Gaddafi’s forces are waiting at the western gate exactly. Any advance by the rebels, they fire at them with mortars,” said rebel fighter Youssef Shawadi, a few kilometres from the gate.