MISURATA, Libya – Fighting erupted across a broad front along this city’s south and west on Friday, as rebels opposed to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi pressed toward the city’s airport and faced a fresh ground attack on their western flank.
The fighting began early in the morning and raged throughout the day. Misurata’s edge became a cacophony of machine-gun and mortar fire, punctuated by the rolling explosions of ground-to-ground rocket strikes in the besieged neighborhoods behind the front lines.
As the two sides fought, Misurata’s troubles appeared to deepen further as NATO said that pro-Qaddafi forces had been caught Friday mining the waters around the harbor, an apparent attempt to harass traffic from the sea, which has been the sole lifeline for a city otherwise cut off by loyalist ground troops.
While pursuing four small boats, NATO forces noticed an object that appeared to be a mine being released into the sea, and later discovered at least two mines in the water, t according to an official who asked not to be named in line with the alliance’s policy.
At least one vessel with humanitarian aid scheduled to enter the port on Friday delayed its arrival and waited off the coast for permission from NATO, medical officials in the city said.
Supplies from the sea have been integral to the city’s survival during the two-month siege, as internationally chartered aid ships have delivered food, water, medicine and ambulances, and also evacuated thousands of migrant workers and many wounded Libyans in need of treatment not available in the city.
A flotilla of rebel fishing vessels and tug boats have also smuggled in weapons, ammunition and other military equipment, allowing the sparsely-supplied rebels to push forward against Colonel Qaddafi’s conventionally equipped troops.
The fighting on two fronts on Friday appeared to signal simultaneous thrusts, in different places –
one by the rebels and the other by loyalist troops.
The loyalists, backed by tanks, struck first, trying to push into and through the village of Zawit Al-Mahjoub early in the morning, fighters and medical officials said. The rebels repelled the attack, but at least six of their fighters were killed and at least 10 more were wounded, a doctor treating the patients said.
As the battle in the western village continued, rebel groups were pushing southward toward the airport, which is still held by the loyalists, and meeting stiff resistance from Qaddafi troops dug in around the facility or garrisoned within.
By mid-morning, a large battle had been joined, and mortar fire was landing, in explosion after explosion, near the rebels clustered and hiding in buildings and behind walls.
Most of the Qaddafi forces inside the city have been killed or chased out. But Qaddafi units control the city’s approaches and many remain at Misurata’s edges, from where they have been shelling the city at will.
A rebel commander, who said he had been a lieutenant colonel in the Libyan military before joining the rebels, said the immediate goal at the airport was to push the pro-Qaddafi units from the airport and ultimately out of rocket range.
“Right now nowhere in the city is safe, and we worry about our mothers, our wives and our daughters,” he said. The commander, who provided his name, asked that it be withheld from publication to prevent retaliation against his family.