Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi are hiding tanks and artillery and using “shoot and scoot” tactics in Misrata, frustrating NATO air efforts to break a weeks-long siege of the rebel-held Libyan city.
Despite repeated bombing raids by the Western alliance, Qaddafi loyalists continue to lay siege to the city and its vital port — making it one of the bloodiest battlefields of Libya’s two-month-old conflict.
Rebels say pro-Qaddafi forces are concealing tanks in buildings and artillery beneath trees, firing from civilian-populated areas and near mosques.
“NATO can’t strike those places,” said Safieddin, a rebel spokesman in the city.
Government forces have abandoned the city center to the rebels, but are entrenched in the built-up outskirts, sometimes firing from the open and scuttling for cover between buildings.
“There are houses there. It’s not as densely populated as downtown Misrata, but still it’s the city,” NATO’s senior military officer, Admiral Giampaolo di Paula, said. “So therefore they are still continuing to use the tactics of shoot and scoot and that’s why we need to continue to systematically degrade their military firepower.”
On Saturday, pro-Qaddafi artillery strikes destroyed four fuel storage tanks in Misrata, insurgents said, leaving the city facing fuel shortages.
“NATO is working, but Qaddafi’s forces are also working,” said a second rebel spokesman in Misrata, named Abdelsalam.
“NATO has been more successful at destroying troops and military vehicles on the move than static forces,” he said. “Every tank or rocket battery destroyed by NATO is immediately replaced. Add to this that they have been hiding tanks in the sand and inside buildings and that they fire artillery rounds from under trees.”
Rebels and residents say the government forces’ snipers and mercenaries, many of them sub-Saharan African migrants forced to fight, are holed up in buildings, firing freely.
Libyan officials deny that government forces are attacking civilians in Misrata and say they are fighting armed gangs linked al-Qaeda. Media access is limited, making it difficult to verify reports from battle zones.