Benghazi: Muammar Gaddafi`s forces rocketed the main fuel depot in Misrata on Saturday, intensifying a two-month siege on the rebel-held city that has claimed civilian lives and prompted warnings of a humanitarian crisis.
Government forces sent Grad rockets slamming into the depot, which contains vital stores of fuel for cars, trucks, ships and generators powering hospitals and other key sites in a city left darkened by electricity cuts, said witnesses and residents.
Fuel tanks were engulfed in flames hours after the early morning attack, as firefighters battled the blazes. No one was injured, a doctor said.
The attack raised fears of shortages, though some of the fuel had already been moved to other sites in anticipation of such a strike.
"After a few days, we may have a big crisis," said Misrata resident Mohammed Abdullah, speaking by Skype since regular phone lines have been cut. "He wants to bring Misrata`s people to their knees, and make them surrender," Abdullah said of the Libyan leader. "Surrendering is impossible."
Some of the heaviest fighting has raged in Misrata, which is of central importance to the rebels as their only major stronghold near the centers of government power in the west of the country. Most of the rebel forces are based in the east.
At Misrata`s hospital, a doctor said Saturday`s bombing could leave them short of a large amount of fuel for generators. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Amnesty International says Gadhafi`s forces may have committed war crimes in Misrata and have used weapons designed for the battlefield and not for residential areas, resulting in civilian casualties and "creating a situation of terror."
The humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating because of regime attempts to tighten its siege and block access by sea, the group said on Friday.
Libyan troops besieging the city of 300,000 by land recently stepped up shelling of Misrata`s port to close the city`s last lifeline. Hundreds of people have been killed in Misrata since February, medics say.
Amnesty said the attempted government blockade of the port has made it even more difficult to bring in supplies. There is no electricity or running water in large parts of the city, and food supplies are dwindling, it said.
About a week ago NATO warships intercepted several boats laying anti-shipping mines outside Misrata`s harbor. Abdullah said Friday that Gadhafi forces have also dropped mines by parachute into the sea from helicopters carrying Red Cross insignia, presumably to evade detection by NATO forces. Other residents reported hearing helicopters.
"This has been going on for two days," Abdullah said. "He (Gaddafi) doesn`t hesitate to do evil things."
The government has not acknowledged the mine-laying but says it is trying to prevent weapons shipments from reaching the rebels by sea.
Government officials deny wrongdoing by Libyan troops, including shelling of civilian areas. Libya`s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said Thursday that the military has decided to block ships from reaching Misrata, but would not discuss the tactics by regime loyalists.
The government said aid ships would be allowed to pass the blockade if they coordinate with the regime.
For much of the past two months, Gaddafi`s troops and tanks were deployed along parts of a downtown thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, while snipers took over high buildings. Late last month, rebel fighters drove regime loyalists to the outskirts of Misrata from where they`ve continued daily shelling attacks.
The hospital doctor said the rebels` morale is high and their coordination has increased to fend off any advances by the Gaddafi forces, which he said are now 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the city center.
"He can only hit us from afar. That is his only trick now," said the doctor.