It was billed by the government as a bus trip for journalists to witness the “liberation” of Misurata, the rebel-held town that has been besieged by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi for the past five weeks.

Instead, it turned into a journey into a war zone, with rebels and soldiers fighting pitched battles across barricaded, rubble-strewn streets, sharp shooters taking potshots from buildings and mortar shells exploding in the distance.

Misurata, it seems, is far from “liberated,” the government's claims notwithstanding.

This city on the coast, Libya's third largest, remains a crucial if often forgotten front in the escalating Libyan war, the only major holdout against the government in the western half of the country. Seized by protesters in the mass uprising that took place last month, it has since been surrounded by Gaddafi loyalists, who launched a major offensive to oust the rebels on the day after the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force to set up a no-fly zone over Libya.

But the airstrikes have had little effect on the fierce, close-quarters urban combat that has raged here as government tanks backed by artillery have sought to punch their way toward the city center along Tripoli Street, a major thoroughfare leading into the city.

Coalition attacks on Gaddafi positions on the outskirts of town appear only to have forced the loyalists deeper into the city, where NATO warplanes are reluctant to strike because of the risk of civilian casualties.

The route into the city is littered with evidence of the ferocity of the street-to-street battles that have been fought, with burned-out vehicles, broken glass and overturned barricades lining the road. Buildings are peppered with shrapnel, lampposts have been uprooted and chunks of masonry lie strewn across the road.

The press bus, ferrying Western reporters on their first visit to the battle-scarred city, stopped at an intersection about a mile and a half from the city center. There the journalists were greeted by a small crowd of chanting, green-outfitted Gaddafi supporters and the explosion of a mortar shell nearby.

Barricades on the street ahead and to the right indicated that this was still an active front. Machine-gun fire crackled in the distance and then came closer. Three more mortar shells exploded. Government minders nervously proclaimed an end to the trip, and the driver jumped on the bus and began driving away.

A Libyan army soldier who gave his name as Capt. Walid apologized for being unable to escort the press further into the city. “We have already won,” he insisted as more crackles of automatic fire echoed nearby. “But there are still snipers here and there, and we can't put you at risk.”

“It's not under their control at all,” screamed Mohammed, a rebel spokesman contacted by satellite telephone from the scene. He said he was trying to contact fighters on the front to tell them not to shoot at the bus. “You should go,” he urged. “It's not safe for you to be here.”

As the bus pulled away, the Gaddafi supporters jumped into their cars and sped away alongside it, heading out of the city.