TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyan rebel forces made major advances in Misurata on Wednesday, capturing the strategically important airport and large swaths of territory around a city that has been encircled by Libyan government troops, residents and rebel officials said.
In Tripoli, Moammar Gaddafi made his first public appearance in nearly two weeks, going to a hotel to meet with tribal leaders from the eastern part of the country. A few hours after the meeting was shown on state TV, four explosions — apparently from NATO cruise missiles — rocked the Libyan capital Thursday morning, and heavy smoke poured from Gaddafi’s compound.
The Libyan government said two people were killed and 27 injured in the NATO missile strikes.
The fight over Misurata has been the bloodiest battle in the nearly three-month-long conflict, and the rebel gains come as NATO has increased the intensity of its bombardment and its coordination with rebel officials.
A leader of the Libyan opposition council, Mahmoud Jibril, said Wednesday that NATO had established a line of communication with rebel commanders in Benghazi, enabling it to improve the effectiveness of its strikes.
“There is direct contact between the operations room in Benghazi and NATO headquarters,” Jibril told reporters and editorial writers in a visit to The Washington Post. “The coordination is much, much better than before.”
Residents of Misurata contacted via Skype said that many in the city turned out into the streets to celebrate on Wednesday evening, with honking cars replacing the sounds of rocket shells after government forces were pushed out of range of most of the city.
Mohammed Alzawwam, a rebel spokesman in Misurata, said rebel fighters had captured stores of ammunition and vehicles that Libyan government troops apparently left behind.
“This doesn’t make the city totally safe, but it makes it safer,” said Mohamed, a member of Misurata’s local council, who asked that his full name not be used to protect his safety. “This is the third day of extensive fighting in and around the airport.”
He said rebels had captured about 40 miles of territory west of the city, Libya’s third-largest, and about 23 miles toward the east. He said Misurata’s port, a crucial supply point that had been under siege from forces loyal to Gaddafi, was now significantly safer.
Doctors at Misurata’s main hospital said a ship left the city on Wednesday carrying dozens of wounded people to Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital in eastern Libya. One doctor said that there had been 65 injuries on Wednesday and 123 on Tuesday, and that at least one person had died. A rebel fighter told the Associated Press on Wednesday that five rebels had died.
Control of Misurata’s airport is important because it could be used to fly in humanitarian aid. It was unclear Wednesday how close Gaddafi’s forces remained to the airport and whether they could continue attacking from afar.
As the rebels were consolidating their gains, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Wednesday for an immediate cease-fire in Libya, saying that he had spoken with Gaddafi’s prime minister and would be sending a special envoy to Tripoli “as soon as possible.”
But Jibril, of the opposition’s Transitional National Council, said rebels opposed a simple cease-fire. “A cease-fire without any political process is the actual and real partition of the country. This is not acceptable at all,” he said.
NATO said Wednesday that it welcomed the idea of a cease-fire, even though it has escalated its bombing campaign in recent days.
Gaddafi also called for a cease-fire in an appearance on state television 12 days ago. But neither side has stopped fighting.
Gaddafi’s long public absence since then, after NATO airstrikes hit his complex April 30, led some Libyans to question whether he was still alive, but he made an appearance late Wednesday at the Rixos Hotel. The hotel houses accredited foreign journalists, making it the safest building in Tripoli if one wants to avoid NATO bombs.
Government minders made sure that no journalists stumbled upon the unannounced meeting. In footage on state TV, the Libyan leader appeared frail, wearing dark glasses and speaking slowly.
Jibril was in Washington on Wednesday to plead for quicker action to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in rebel-controlled Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced last week that the U.S. government would work with Congress on legislation authorizing the unfreezing of about $150 million in blocked Libyan assets, which would be converted to humanitarian aid.
Jibril said the idea seemed to have support in Congress but was too cumbersome. “This is taking too much time, when you get into legal measures and bureaucracy,” he said.
He and his team urged the United States to allow them to borrow against Libyan assets frozen under U.N. sanctions, which exceed $34 billion in American institutions alone. But the opposition’s finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, said the request was not granted.
“So far, we haven’t really gotten anything positive from Treasury,” he said. U.S. officials say the rebels can’t borrow against the frozen assets because legally it’s not their money.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), head of the Foreign Relations Committee, said after meeting Jibril on Wednesday that he was working on legislation to release some of Gaddafi’s frozen funds.
“We have succeeded in the initial mission, which was to prevent a massacre of civilians by Colonel Gaddafi on the ground,” Kerry told reporters. The next step, he said, is to help the rebels build democratic institutions, “but they obviously will still need help in getting there.”
Sheridan reported from Washington. Special correspondent Portia Walker in Benghazi and staff writer David Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.