UN says Libyan regime promises Misrata access

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The U.N. humanitarian chief said Monday that the Libyan government has promised her access to the besieged rebel city of Misrata, but with no guarantees that the assault by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces would cease.

A Libyan official said the government is willing to set up “safe passage” into Misrata, the only city still partly held by rebels in Gadhafi-controlled western Libya. But at the same time, a witness in Misrata reported Monday that government forces continued to pound the city with rockets and artillery.

At least 267 people have been killed in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, during more than seven weeks of siege, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Monday. It said the final toll is likely higher. After inspecting impact sites and talking to witnesses, the group accused Libyan forces of launching indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks on residential neighborhoods.

Rebels and civilians evacuated from Misrata by boat as part of an international rescue mission were taken off on gurneys or in wheelchairs Monday. One had a severely damaged leg with braces and bandages and some women carried babies. One of the rebels carried fragments of rockets as he disembarked in the rebels’ de facto capital Benghazi late Monday.

“I brought this to show people what’s going on there (in Misrata). Somebody has to do something about it,” said the rebel, 38-year-old Ali Milad, who wore a long dirty robe and carried his belongings in a single bag.

The rebels have controlled much of eastern Libya, including the second-largest Libyan city of Benghazi, since early on in the uprising against Gadhafi that began in mid-February. Gadhafi loyalists have crushed other rebellions in western Libya, but have not been able to take back control of Misrata through many weeks of attacks.

The Libyan government has denied firing heavy weapons, including rockets and tank shells, at the city.

“If there is killing of civilians, we are saying that the rebels are the ones killing civilians,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Monday. He said the rebels have received weapons by sea from the Gulf state of Qatar and alleged European governments have also started arming the Misrata fighters, but did not elaborate or provide evidence.

The Libyan government has turned down repeated requests by foreign journalists based in the capital of Tripoli to go to Misrata. Journalists in Tripoli are not allowed to tour western Libya independently, without government minders.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said she demanded in a meeting with Libyan officials in Tripoli on Sunday that the U.N. be permitted to visit Misrata and other towns to assess the humanitarian needs there.

“I have been given those assurances,” she said Monday, speaking in Benghazi.

However, she added that she received “no guarantees with respect to my call for an overall cessation of hostilities, to enable people to move, to enable us to deliver supplies.”

Ibrahim, the Libyan official, said the government is willing to take international organizations, including the U.N., into the areas of Misrata it controls. “We will help them do everything they want, help the population, and they can observe the way our army is acting and behaving in Misrata,” he said.

The battle for Misrata and warnings by aid officials of an increasingly dire situation there have turned into a test of NATO’s resolve to protect Libyan civilians, as mandated by the U.N.

Hundreds of NATO airstrikes in the past month have neutralized the Gadhafi regime’s extensive system of fixed radar sites and anti-aircraft missiles, and have destroyed much of the inventory of armored vehicles and artillery. However, the strikes been less effective in urban combat, including in Misrata, where they failed to push back Gadhafi’s troops.

NATO has said it needs at least nine more precision attack aircraft to do the job.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Monday that the needs of tens of thousands of civilians in Libya are not being met as a result of the fighting. The U.N. recently set up a humanitarian aid operation in the rebel-controlled east and said it reached agreement with the Gadhafi government on Sunday to open an office in Tripoli as well.

Human Rights Watch said in a report Monday that Libyan forces have indiscriminately fired into residential neighborhoods, using inaccurate Grad rockets. The group quoted witnesses as saying that rebels were not present when these areas were attacked.

Since Thursday, 16 civilians have been killed, including eight who were standing in line at a bakery, the group said.

Rebels and pro-Gadhafi units battled over the city center Monday, said Rida al-Montasser, a Misrata resident.

Early Monday, nearly 1,000 people — among several thousand stranded in the area of Misrata’s port — boarded an aid ship sent by the International Organization for Migration.

Most of the passengers were migrant workers, but also included 100 Libyans, among them 23 wounded in the fighting. The injured included a child shot in the face and an amputee, the aid group said.

“We wanted to be able to take on more people, but it was not possible,” said Jeremy Haslam, who heads the group’s boat rescue. “Although the exchange of fire subsided while we were boarding with an eerie silence at one point, we had a very limited time to get the migrants and Libyans on board the ship and then leave,” he said.

The organization said at least 4,000 additional migrants are stranded in the port area, including women and children.

Many of the refugees have been living out in the open or in containers in the port area for nearly two months, lacking access to water and medical and running short on food. IOM said many of the migrants are weak and dehydrated.

Haslam said the group needs funding for a bigger boat to rescue the remaining migrants in a single trip.

Later Monday, Britain said it would provide the money, about $3.3 million. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell also pledged to pay for emergency medical aid for civilians in western Libya.

“Thousands of foreign workers have managed to reach the port but find themselves at terrible risk from incoming fire, with no way to get out,” Mitchell said. “These evacuations will take them to safety and help reduce the demand in Misrata for the very limited supplies of food, water and medical supplies available.”

Mitchell said that the International Medical Corps would send a five-person medical team to provide surgical and trauma skills, and that Britain will offer supplies of antibiotics, analgesics, bandages, first aid kits and surgical equipment.

In Germany, Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle suggested the humanitarian aid to Libya be funded by the Libyan government’s frozen assets. The Gadhafi government has said about $120 billion in assets have been frozen worldwide.

However, diverting the assets would require an international agreement, said a German official, speaking on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue.

The leader of the rebels’ transitional government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, held meetings with foreign supporters.

After a visit to the Gulf state of Qatar, which has given the rebels diplomatic and financial backing, Abdul-Jalil was to head to Rome on Tuesday for talks with the country’s top officials, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

Italy has recognized the rebels’ transitional government as the only legitimate representative of the people of Libya.

“Italy is extremely worried over the civilian population in Libya and especially in Misrata,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari said Monday.

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