MISRATAH: Libyan rebel fighters in Misratah appeared on the cusp of a major victory yesterday as they drove fleeing government forces out of the city after nearly two months of fierce battles.

The rebel gains followed a day of some of the fiercest fighting in weeks, in which at least 24 people were killed and more than a 100 wounded, according to hospital officials. The wounded were struck down in a bombardment that pounded the city from dawn to about 3pm local time and in intense street battles between rebel fighters and retreating Gaddafi forces. By mid-afternoon, the guns of those loyal to Muammar Gaddafi had fallen silent.

Dozens of pro-Gaddafi soldiers were reportedly killed or captured. Rebels continued to retake territory from Gaddafi’s forces in the second straight day of gains.

The rebel push came as the US said its first Predator drone attack in the country had destroyed a government rocket launcher that had menaced civilians in Misratah. The Pentagon said it was the first attack carried out in Libya by one of the drones, which began flying missions in the country on Thursday.

Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Kaim, denied the army had pulled out of Misratah. He said it had stopped operations there in response to pressure from tribal leaders, who wanted life in the city to return to normal.

“If the rebels don’t surrender in the next two days, armed tribesmen will fight them in place of the army,” he said, adding that the tribes could muster 60,000 fighters to send into Misratah.

The opposition was sceptical of the claims. “Gaddafi forces are moving back,” said rebel spokesman Safi Eddin al-Montaser. But he added: “People are still nervous because we don’t know the next step of Gaddafi’s forces.”

Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebels’ leadership council in Benghazi, claimed the rebels were firmly in control of the city.

Misratah, the only major rebel stronghold in western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted long-time leaders. Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with NATO airstrikes that began last month.

Residents reported heavy fighting, shelling and explosions in the east and south of Misratah and doctors said yesterday’s fighting was the bloodiest in weeks.

A doctor at a Misratah hospital said that officials who feared a strong attack had moved out some patients on Saturday to make way for more casualties.

Pro-Gaddafi troops in central Misratah — including snipers who had terrorised residents for days atop an eight-storey building — were either flushed out or withdrew in the past two days in what the rebels considered a victory.

“They have withdrawn because they suffered heavy casualties in Misratah and couldn’t hold on anymore,” said Akram Ali Hameda, a 26-year-old fighter. “God willing, it’s almost over and our victory in the city will be complete within a couple of days.”

Mr Hameda said stepped-up NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi positions outside Misratah had helped rebels land what they hoped would be the decisive blow against Gaddafi’s punishing siege of the city.

On Saturday, NATO airstrikes in the Misratah southern suburb of Dufan destroyed a massive convoy of Land-Cruisers carrying soldiers and arms towards the city, Mr Hameda said. On Friday, he said, 30 tanks had been destroyed.

The retreat of pro-Gaddafi forces enabled some people to venture out into the battle-scarred streets and allowed fighters to set up new checkpoints at the entrance to the city.

“The people began breathing freely,” one resident said during the day, although he added that rebels were still wary of pro-Gaddafi fighters who may have melted into the population.

There was no sign of celebrations in the streets.

Traffic had returned and there were long lines for bread and petrol, signs of the distress that the prolonged siege has caused in the city.

In eastern Libya, which is largely controlled by the rebels, other NATO strikes smashed more than two dozen sedans and pick-up trucks belonging to government forces about halfway between Ajdabiya and the strategic oil town of Brega.

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