Ship meant for Tripoli evacuations comes under fire

A Maltese ship heading for Tripoli to pick up refugees came under fire and could not dock in the port, Polish foreign ministry officials were quoted as saying on Sunday by Polish state news agency PAP.

“The ship is waiting for a better moment to enter the port because during its first attempt it came under fire,” Paulina Kapuscinska, a spokesperson from the ministry, told PAP.

The ministry was not immediately available to confirm the report.

Poland has evacuated most of its citizens from Libya and moved its ambassador from Tripoli to rebel-held Benghazi but about 250 people from mixed Polish-Libyan families have stayed behind, the ministry official added.

One family had hoped to leave on the Maltese ship, the MV Triva 1.

Evacuations
Britons and other foreign nationals were due to be evacuated from Tripoli on a boat to Malta on Sunday as fighting between rebels and Muammar Gaddafi’s forces reached the Libyan capital, the foreign office said.

The boat sent by the Maltese government “was due to leave at 9am local time” on Sunday, bound for Valletta, a foreign office spokesperson in London told Agence France-Presse—although she could not confirm it had left.

About eight or nine British nationals were allocated places and other nationalities were also on board, she said. The boat is not a passenger vessel, she added, without giving further details.

“We are aware of foreign nationals being there, including some British nationals who are leaving this morning,” said foreign office minister Alistair Burt in an interview with the BBC.

He added, “Our advice to people in Tripoli has been consistent over a lengthy period of time, obviously to take all available opportunities to leave.

“Most of those who are still there have had reasons to stay embedded, many will have had relatives or relations and have been content to stay in Tripoli.”

Britain evacuated hundreds of its nationals when fighting broke out in February and asked those who remained, who include dual nationals, journalists and health workers, to register voluntarily with the foreign office.

Since then they have been offered various “exit options”, of which the Maltese ship is one, the spokesperson said. She would not disclose how many Britons were thought to remain in Libya.

Burt added, “The position of civilians, both foreign nationals and Libyan civilians, has been well taken into account by forces over the last few months and the [rebel] National Transitional Council have clear plans for how to deal with the situation now.”

Overnight gunfire
Explosions and gunfire rocked Tripoli through the night as opponents of Gaddafi rose up in the capital, declaring a final push to topple the Libyan leader after a six-month war reached the city’s outskirts.

A defiant Gaddafi said an assault by “rats” had been repelled.

“Those rats ...
were attacked by the masses tonight and we eliminated them,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast over state television early on Sunday.

“I know that there are air bombardments but the fireworks were louder than the sound of the bombs thrown by the aircraft.”

Intense gunfire erupted after nightfall. Reuters journalists in the centre of the capital said it subsided somewhat after several hours, but bursts of machinegun fire and explosions could still be heard in the pre-dawn hours, indicating fighting in several neighbourhoods.

“The zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up,” Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairperson of the rebel NTC, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, told Reuters.

Street celebrations
Gaddafi’s influential former number two, Abdel Salam Jalloud, who defected to the rebel cause a day earlier, appeared on al-Jazeera by internet video link and called on the capital to rise against “the tyrant”.

“Tonight you claim victory over fear,” he said. An NTC official, Mohammed al-Allaqi, said Jalloud was in Rome.

The clashes inside the capital triggered massive street celebrations in Benghazi as well as elsewhere in the country and in the capital of neighbouring Tunisia.

Gaddafi’s information minister said the rebel incursion into the city had been quickly put down.

Rebel advances on Tripoli have transformed the war since they seized the city of Zawiyah on Tripoli’s Western outskirts a week ago, cutting the capital off from its main road link to the outside world and putting unprecedented pressure on Gaddafi.

Before dawn, state television showed Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam addressing what it called a youth conference. A roomful of supporters broke into occasional chants and applause as he declared that the rebels would be defeated.

“The revolt in Libya will not succeed. You will never see us as Libyans surrender and raise the white flag: that is impossible. This is our country and we will never leave it.”

Fighting rages
Fighting was still raging after midnight around Mitiga airbase in Tripoli’s Tajourah district, an area said to be under rebel control, an opposition activist told a Reuters journalist outside Libya.

The gun battles left a number of rebels dead in the suburb of Qadah and elsewhere, along with at least three pro-Gaddafi soldiers in the Zawiyat al-Dahmania district of Tripoli, he said.

A Tripoli resident told Reuters that Muslim clerics in parts of Tripoli had called on people to rise up, using the loudspeakers on minarets. The resident said the call went out around the time people were breaking their Ramadan fast.

“We can hear shooting in different places,” one resident said. “Most of the regions of the city have gone out, mostly young people ... it’s the uprising ... They went out after breaking the fast.”

“They are shouting religious slogans: ‘God is greatest!’”

Washington says Gaddafi’s days are numbered, and reports have emerged of more defections from his ranks. President Barack Obama, on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard, was receiving regular updates on Libya, a senior White House official said.

“If Tripoli eventually falls to the rebels, Gaddafi’s already limited options become even more limited. Pressure on him and his shrinking circle of loyalists has to be taking a serious toll,” a senior White House official said.

Rebels said on Saturday they had thwarted an attempt by Gaddafi’s forces to recapture Zawiyah.

“Gaddafi will try to take back Zawiyah at any price. He will keep shelling the hospital,” a rebel fighter said as he prepared for midday prayers in the mosque of Bir Hawisa, a nearby village where many civilians are sheltering. “We will not let that happen. We will fight.” - Reuters, AFP

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