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US Sends Drones to Libya, Battle Rages for Misrata

By Michael Georgy

MISRATA, Libya | Thu Apr 21, 2011, 7:45pm EDT

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) -

The United States has started using armed drones against Muammar Gaddafi's troops, who battled rebels at close quarters on the streets of Misrata, despite Western threats to step up a month-old air war.

Rebels welcomed the deployment of U.S. unmanned aircraft and said they hoped the move would protect civilians.

Doctors at the hospital in Misrata, the rebels' last major bastion in the West of the country, said nine insurgents were killed in fighting on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Washington news conference President Barack Obama had authorized the use of Predator drones and they were already in operation.

General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first two Predators were sent to Libya on Thursday but had to turn back because of bad weather.

The United States planned to maintain two patrols of armed Predators above Libya at any given time, Cartwright said.

The drones have proven a potent weapon in Pakistan and other areas where U.S. forces have no troops on the ground. They can stay aloft nearly perpetually without being noticed from the ground and hit targets with missiles, with no risk to crew.

"There's no doubt that will help protect civilians and we welcome that step from the American administration," Rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said on Al Jazeera television.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gaddafi's forces were carrying out "vicious attacks" on Misrata and might have used cluster bombs against civilians.


Hundreds of people are believed to have died in Misrata during its siege. At the hospital, ambulances raced in carrying wounded fighters. Doctors said that four of the nine rebels killed died in a fierce battle around the Tripoli Street thoroughfare.

Rebel Salman al-Mabrouk said a group came under fire when they tried to enter a building occupied by pro-Gaddafi snipers.

"We suddenly discovered they had surrounded us on all sides and they opened fire. It seems many government soldiers were inside buildings around the one where we tried to get into."

Rebel fighters voiced frustration with an international military operation they see as too cautious.

"NATO has been inefficient in Misrata. NATO has completely failed to change things on the ground," rebel spokesman Abdelsalam said.

Food and medical supplies were running out and there were long queues for petrol. Electricity was cut so residents depended on generators. Thousands of stranded foreign migrant workers awaited rescue in the port area.


France said it would send up to 10 military advisers to Libya and Britain plans to dispatch up to a dozen officers to help rebels improve organization and communications. Italy is considering sending a small military training team.

Tripoli denounced such moves and some commentators warned of "mission creep," after assurances by Western leaders that they would not put "boots on the ground" in Libya.

Russia said the sending of advisers exceeded the U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilians.

"We are not happy about the latest events in Libya, which are pulling the international community into a conflict on the ground. This may have unpredictable consequences," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Libyan authorities to stop fighting, saying during a visit to Moscow that the priority of the United Nations was to secure a ceasefire.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has spearheaded U.N.-backed NATO intervention, pledged stronger military action at his first meeting with the leader of the opposition Libyan National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on Wednesday.

The French Defense Ministry said on Thursday it had increased the number of its air sorties in the past week to 41 from an average of 30 since the start of the operation.

Libya urged rebels on Thursday to sit down to peace talks but said it was arming and training civilians to confront any possible ground attack by NATO forces.

"Many cities have organized themselves into squads to fight any possible NATO invasion," government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said, adding that authorities were handing out rifles and guns.

In Tripoli, Ibrahim told reporters the government welcomed ships coming to Misrata to pick up foreign workers. However, it would not accept international humanitarian aid arriving "with military cover."

(Writing by Andrew Dobbie; Editing by Peter Graff)

Rebels improvise to counter Gaddafi firepower

By Michael Georgy

MISRATA, Libya | Thu Apr 21, 2011, 11:55am EDT

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) -

Hassan Saleh never imagined how his work day on Tripoli Street would end up when he studied to become a banker in the city of Misrata.

The day starts with incoming mortar rounds in the middle of the night. Then it gets really terrifying.

"The snipers start on us. Then there are rockets. Things are really bad," said Saleh, sheltering behind a cement wall from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces in the besieged city.

Around him, buildings are burned out and pulverized from seven weeks of fighting.

Twisted metal and bullet cases riddle the streets of Libya's third city, whose resistance has become a symbol of the battle by rebels to topple Gaddafi in the name of democracy.

Tripoli Street is at the heart of the fighting and rebels there are trying to figure out how best to simply survive.

Just down the street, say Saleh and his comrades, are 300 soldiers and militiamen holed up in a fortified old hospital they are using to launch mortars and rockets.

Occasionally, Gaddafi loyalists move up and down the streets in pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons. Snipers blend into the ruins to track rebel movements meticulously.

"Gaddafi's fighters taunt us. If they are in a nearby building they yell at us at night to scare us. They insult us and call us rats," said one rebel.

Gaddafi dismisses the rebels as rats and says they are sent by al Qaeda to destabilize Libya and make it a militant base.

The insurgents now rely on Western powers, who set up a no-fly zone to destroy Gaddafi's tanks. But as the rebels have found, there is a limit to much protection that offers.

Routes leading into Tripoli street are blocked by huge orange dump trucks or heavy tree trunks so tanks can't get through. Sometimes the best the rebels can manage are mattress frames or scavenged car parts.

From defense to attack, it's all about improvisation.

"When we want to try and advance we just scream Allah hu Akbar (God is Greatest). Some run to the left, some run to the 'right and one guy usually just shoots down the middle," said rebel Abdel Raouf, 32, who worked in Libya's tourism industry before trading hotel brochures for a worn automatic rifle.


Another rebel, resting on a dirt lane, said "We don't have a leader. All decisions are personal on the front line." Nearby, an insurgent peered through binoculars at a pockmarked green and white building, scanning for the enemy.

Gaddafi's loyalists are trying to gain the edge on Tripoli Street with their superior firepower.

They fired more than 40 mortars overnight, the insurgents say. One landed in a mound of sand the rebels set up a few feet from a room where they sipped tea.

That one hurt nobody, but others did.

The corpses of three rebels were laid beside each other in Misrata's hospital. Comrades stood over them and wept. Others stuck their faces between their knees and trembled in despair.

Despite the losses, the fighters in Misrata appear more disciplined than the ragtag rebels along Libya's east -- who run away from attacks rather than digging in.

In Misrata, the insurgents are defending homes and neighborhoods and not the remote desert roads of the east. With their backs to the sea, the rebels have nowhere to run.

The insurgents score some successes too.

Olive uniforms mark where Gaddafi's soldiers fell. Three charred corpses are what remains from what the rebels say were African mercenaries, though Gaddafi denies using hired guns.

Two very nervous African men are led past for questioning.

"To hell with you Gaddafi," said one fighter proudly.

One kilometer (half a mile) further down Tripoli Street, the rebels call themselves the "Martyrs Unit." They stand beside a government vehicle seized in battle.

The car was quickly painted in rebel colors and a poster of a young Libyan taped to its windshield -- a brother of one of the fighters who was killed by a rocket.

Although the rebels are fighting hard to keep their hold on Tripoli Street, there is little sign they can push back Gaddafi's forces without significant Western help.

The rebels want that to go beyond air support,

"There is no way we will be able to keep Gaddafi away from Misrata, from coming back in full force, unless foreign armies launch a ground invasion," said insurgent Abu Bakr, 32. "It's the only way we can win."

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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