ALGIERS, (Reuters) – Western airstrikes hit Libyan government forces’ positions in the rebel-held city of Misrata today, silencing an artillery bombardment but not snipers who were firing from rooftops near the hospital, residents said.
Rebels in Misrata who have been fighting for weeks to hold off attacks on Libya’s third largest city welcomed the air strikes, saying they would help even out their unequal battle against heavily-armed forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Unlike the main rebel strongholds in the east of Libya, Misrata is encircled by pro-Gaddafi forces. Residents say dozens of people have been killed in tank and artillery bombardments in the past few days.
“Now with the air strikes we are more optimistic,” Saadoun, a Misrata resident, told Reuters by telephone. “These strikes gives us hope, especially the fact they are precise and are targeting the (Gaddafi) forces and not only the bases.”
He said there had been two strikes and, judging from columns of smoke rising up afterwards, they targeted locations in the south-west of the city where pro-Gaddafi forces are positioned.
“Before the strikes, tanks shelled the city…but now they haven’t fired a single artillery (round) since the air strike.”
Another resident said the strikes had hit an air base and military training college about 7 km south of the city centre, which pro-Gaddafi forces have been using as their main base for launching attacks on Misrata.
Reports from Misrata were impossible to independently verify because Libyan authorities have prevented journalists from reaching the city, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Libyan officials made no comment on developments in the city.
The air strikes in Misrata followed a warning from the U.S. military that it would, in addition to its mission to destroy anti aircraft systems, send warplanes to attack Gaddafi’s forces if they threaten civilians.
But the air strikes had not stopped snipers loyal to Gaddafi, who have been staked out on rooftops in the centre of Misrata for several days.
Residents said snipers killed at least five people on Wednesday, including three shot near the clinic where hundreds wounded in the fighting are being treated.
“The snipers are … shooting at the hospital and its two entrances are under heavy attack. No one can get in or out,” said Saadoun. “We have lost all communication with people inside. The last thing we knew is that three are killed and three are critically wounded.”
A second resident, Sami, told Reuters two more people were killed by snipers on rooftops around the city’s main thoroughfare, Tripoli street.
“Two people were killed by snipers an hour ago in the centre of the town. Their bodies are now at the hospital, which I visited a while ago. Shooting is still going on there.”
He said snipers appeared to be targeting people trying to get access to the hospital. “It is very difficult to get in or out of the hospital because of the snipers being positioned there,” he said.
“The humanitarian situation is critical because of a shortage of food, water and electricity.”