Kadhafi forces pound Ajdabiya and Misrata

Guillaume Lavallee
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Kadhafi forces pound Ajdabiya.

Libyan regime forces pound rebels with heavy artillery west of Ajdabiya, forcing hundreds of residents and some fighters to flee the key crossroads town. EXCLUSIVE IMAGES: AFPTV WAS THE ONLY CAMERA CREW IN THIS LOCATION

Regime forces bombarded rebels west of Ajdabiya on Sunday, forcing hundreds of residents and some fighters to flee the key crossroads town, as a refugee rescue operation in the besieged city of Misrata prepared to get underway.

The intense pounding of Ajdabiya came a day after at least eight people were killed and 27 wounded as the forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi fired rockets at rebel positions there, hospital officials said.

"Kadhafi's forces approached the city, they bombed the western gate. The sound of the guns are coming closer, that's why many are leaving," said Omar Salim Mufta, a 27-year-old resident rebel supporter who has not taken up arms.

Timeline: Libya crisis

Another civilian, 48-year-old Milud Ghait, appealed for NATO to launch air strikes on the area as about a dozen pickup trucks carrying rebel fighters left the eastern town.

"Kadhafi's forces are on the western outskirts of Ajdabiya, but NATO is doing nothing. Where is NATO? What are the French, British and Americans doing?" he asked.

On the political front, Britain insisted that it would not send ground forces into Libya.

"What we've said is there is no question of an invasion or an occupation, this is not about Britain putting boots on the ground, this is not what we are about here," Prime Minister David Cameron told Sky News.

He stressed international forces would not go beyond the terms set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorises all necessary means to protect civilians in Libya but rules out a foreign occupation force.

It was not immediately clear if there were casualties from Sunday's loyalist bombardment of Ajdabiya.

Scene: Life and death in Misrata, a city under siege

"They are about 20 kilometres (12 miles) away. They are firing at us with Grad rockets," said Kemal Abdel Mohammed Abdel, 24, a rebel returning from the front.

The ragtag rebel fighters had previously appeared set to move on Brega, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Ajdabiya, with some correspondents reporting they were on the outskirts of the strategic oil town.

In the besieged western bastion of Misrata, a chartered Greek ferry arrived off the port as part of an international refugee rescue operation.

"This ship contains 500 tonnes of humanitarian aid, both medical and food, four ambulances and three doctors who are to replace colleagues," said Jeremy Haslam, IOM operations leader on board.

The IOM was hoping to take on 1,000-plus refugees packed around the port.

"We hope to target the most vulnerable, West Africans, mostly from Chad and Niger, who are the least looked after by the local population," Haslam said.

The IOM has identified some 10,000 non-Libyan refugees waiting to leave and who are camping out around Misrata without adequate shelter, clean water or food and no medical care.

That breaks down as 3,000-plus from Egypt, 3,000-plus from Niger, 1,000-plus from Chad, 1,000-plus from Ghana, 800 from Sudan and 75 from Bangladesh.

"This is the humanitarian priority in Libya, the fact that it keeps being shelled is grave," Haslam said of Misrata.

A source at the city's Hikma hospital gave the latest toll for that facility alone on Sunday as 16 dead and 71 wounded, with many casualties being brought in late in the day.

Gunfire was reported close to the hospital, and tracer fire was seen in the night sky over the city centre.

Earlier, rebels said they mounted successful raids on Kadhafi's troops in the city.

Smoke billowed over central Misrata, which a witness said was from a destroyed regime tank, as the rebels claimed to have taken out several pro-Kadhafi snipers along the port's main avenue, Tripoli Street.

Wailing mourners gathered outside the Hikma hospital as another victim of the fighting was brought in, doctors and mourners carrying the coffin of a man fatally wounded in the fierce fighting that has torn through the town.

As the body was loaded into the back of a pick-up truck and driven away to be buried, gunshots crackled in the air.

The sound of NATO jets could be heard overhead throughout the afternoon as gun battles raged in various districts.

The triage tent outside the hospital had seen a steady stream of victims, including a young boy receiving stitches to his head. Beside him, medics treated a man who had been hit in the head with shrapnel.

In the west, a witness reported that the insurgents hold the road from Zintan to the border with Tunisia, despite efforts by Kadhafi forces to cut the lines of communication of rebel-held towns in the area.

Loyalists were bombarding the area around the town of Nalut, 230 kilometres (142 miles) southwest of Tripoli and a few dozen kilometres from the border, the witness said.