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Fighting rages in Libya's Western Mountains

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi stepped up their onslaught on rebel areas of Libya's Western Mountains late on Monday, rebels said, and refugees said towns in the isolated region were on the brink of starvation.

world Updated: May 03, 2011 07:59 IST

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi stepped up their onslaught on rebel areas of Libya's Western Mountains late on Monday, rebels said, and refugees said towns in the isolated region were on the brink of starvation.

At least 10 Grad rockets landed on the town of Zintan, rebel spokesman Abdulrahman told Reuters by telephone. "They were fired by Gaddafi forces positioned north of Zintan," he said.

Berber towns in the Western Mountains, close to the border with Tunisia, have been pounded by government forces after joining the rebellion that erupted two months ago.

"If I had stayed there my two little daughters would have been among the dead," Fatma Douri, 35, who has fled the besieged town of Yafran, said in a refugee camp in the Tunisian border town of Dehiba.

"The siege of the town absolutely has to be lifted, otherwise thousands of children are going to be among the dead in the next few weeks."

Like anti-Gaddafi groups in other parts of Libya, rebels in the Western Mountains want more help from Western warplanes. Asked if NATO air strikes on pro-Gaddafi forces around Zintan had been effective, Abdulrahman said:

"No. They are better than no strikes at all but they could do much better. The targets are clear. If rebel fighters can see them, surely NATO aircraft are able to spot and destroy them."

Mines block port
Further east, a rebel spokesman in the besieged coastal city of Misrata said fighting took place on Monday near the city's airport, which remains under the control of Gaddafi forces.

NATO minesweepers searched the approaches of Misrata harbour on Monday for a drifting mine blocking aid supplies.

A NATO statement said the alliance had destroyed two of three mines laid by government forces. It said the mines were small and hard to detect but capable of doing serious damage.

The International Organisation for Migration said an aid ship was still waiting off Misrata for bombing to stop and mines to be cleared before it tried to deliver supplies and evacuate some 1,000 foreigners and wounded Libyans.

The rebel interim National Council's senior spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga urged NATO to step up air strikes on Gaddafi forces near Misrata, saying they were trying to destroy the port.

"We would like to see heavier and more intensive bombardment of Gaddafi forces, particularly now that they're building up forces in areas 50 or 60 km outside Misrata," he said. "They're building up forces in preparation for attack."

A Misrata resident and rebel sympathiser named Ghassan told Reuters hospital records showed 110 civilians and rebels had been killed in the besieged city since April 24, and more than 350 wounded.

Crowds chanting support for Gaddafi gathered in Tripoli on Monday for the funeral of his 29-year-old son Saif al-Arab. The government says a NATO air raid on Saturday killed him and three of Gaddafi's young grandchildren.

The announcement of the deaths triggered attacks by angry crowds on the British and French embassies and the U.S. diplomatic mission in Tripoli, and accusations from the Libyan officials that NATO had been trying to assassinate Gaddafi.

About 2,000 people carrying flags and pictures of Gaddafi turned out for the funeral. They pumped their fists in the air and vowed to avenge the death of Saif al-Arab.

"We are all with Gaddafi's Libya," read one placard.

The coffin, covered in flowers and wrapped in the green flag that has represented Libya since Gaddafi took power in a 1969 coup, was carried through crowds to the grave at Hani cemetery.

Gaddafi did not appear to be at the funeral but Saif al-Islam, the most prominent of his seven sons, attended along with his elder half-brother Mohammed.

Military pace increasing
Despite denials from Western leaders that the air raid was an assassination attempt, it has renewed debate on whether the strikes are exceeding a UN mandate to protect civilians.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said NATO would intensify military operations in Libya.

"Time is not on the side of the Gaddafi regime," he said during a visit to Cairo. "The policy is to continue to increase pressure on the Gaddafi regime -- diplomatic, economic and military pressure. We have increased the pace of the military operations under U.N. resolution 1973 and will go on doing so."

Switzerland said it had found 360 million Swiss francs ($415 million) of potentially illegal assets linked to Gaddafi and his circle. Some 410 million had been traced to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and 60 million to former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.