MISURATA, Libya — Libyan rebels said they had flushed more government soldiers from the besieged western city of Misurata on Saturday, consolidating their control after another day of heavy fighting marked by the first strike by U.S.-armed Predator drones.
“We are winning. All of [Moammar Gaddafi’s] tanks and weapons have been seized inside Misurata,” said Mohamed Ali, a spokesman for the rebel city council.
Ali said he had earlier witnessed what appeared to have been the first Predator drone attack of the conflict, on the vegetable market on Tripoli Street, the main three-mile avenue that divides the city, where a few of Gaddafi’s troops were still holed up and attacking.
NATO said a U.S. Predator drone destroyed a multiple-rocket launcher Saturday in the Misurata area that was being used against civilians. The Pentagon said an unmanned aircraft had carried out a strike Saturday, the first since the drones began flying missions in Libya on Thursday, but did not say where.
Ali said there had also been a large NATO airstrike on a base used by Gaddafi’s troops at the African Souk, or market, south of the city, which appeared to have inflicted significant damage.
But even as some rebels claimed victory in the battle for Misurata, Ali said it was too early to celebrate, after a day in which 22 people died on the rebel side of the front line and 65 were wounded. “We lost too many people to celebrate anything.”
Doctors at Hikma hospital here said 31 people were killed and more than 80 were injured Saturday. By late afternoon Sunday, nine more people had been killed and at least 34 were injured. Gaddafi forces were in retreat and had left the hospital on Tripoli Street in the center of the city, where they had been camped out for weeks. They remained in other pockets of the city.
At least 400 people have been killed in the city during the siege, according to doctors, and more than 1,000 are presumed dead.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim announced late Friday that the army had been unable to pacify Misurata because of NATO’s airstrikes and said it would now leave the job to local tribes who support Gaddafi and who, he said, are angry that their access to the port is being blocked by the rebels.
But rebels in Misurata said the government’s announcement seemed intended to mask the “collapse” of Gaddafi’s forces in the key western city, 131 miles east of Tripoli.
“Gaddafi’s forces . . . know they have failed,” Ali said. “I think [Gaddafi] is trying to disguise his loss.”
Shelling of Misurata continued Saturday from government forces stationed south and southwest of the city. In the center, rebels were combing the city and clearing the streets, but they said that before leaving, Gaddafi’s forces had booby-trapped bodies, houses and cars.
In the early hours of Sunday, Kaim said tribal leaders were trying to contact the rebels and would spend the next 48 hours trying to reach a negotiated solution.
“Their main demand is that foreign fighters should leave the town or surrender themselves to the army,” he said, reflecting the government’s assertion that foreign members of al-Qaeda are playing a leading role in the rebellion, a claim flatly denied by the rebels.
“The other option is military action to liberate Misurata,” he said, adding there were 60,000 armed tribesmen ready to fight. “If the tribes move into the city, it will be very bloody,” he said. “I pray to God we avoid this.”
In Tripoli, a NATO airstrike in the early hours of Saturday hit what looked like an underground military bunker beside Gaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziyah compound. Libyan officials who took reporters to the site said it was an underground water system in a civilian parking lot.
There were two holes in the ground, puncturing the concrete roof of the underground system, and cases of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles left unattended beside the site.
NATO said it had conducted 59 strike sorties on Friday and hit two command-and-control bunkers in the capital as well as three tanks, a bunker and other targets near Misurata.