RABAT (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi mounted an intense artillery bombardment of rebel-held Misrata Friday and pro-Gaddafi troops attacked shops and homes in the city center, residents said.
Misrata is the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya but after weeks of shelling and encirclement, government forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels' hold on the city, despite Western air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets there.
One resident said an attempt by government forces to take control of the center had been fought off by rebels but that afterwards pro-Gaddafi forces started indiscriminate shelling of Misrata's port and the city center.
"They used tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and other projectiles to hit the city today. It was a random and very intense bombardment," a rebel spokesman called Sami told Reuters by telephone. "We no longer recognize the place. The destruction cannot be described."
"The pro-Gaddafi soldiers who made it inside the city through Tripoli Street are pillaging the place, the shops, even homes, and destroying everything in the process.
"They are targeting everyone, including civilians' homes. I don't know what to say, may Allah help us," he said.
Western warplanes have attacked an air base south of Misrata where pro-Gaddafi forces have their main base, and residents said at least one warship belonging to the international anti-Gaddafi coalition was at anchor off the coast.
But locals have expressed growing frustration with the coalition air strikes, saying they have done little to help the situation on the ground.
"Air strikes are not enough. Can we wait until he kills all of us? Everyday somebody is killed. This strategy is not working," said Aiman, a doctor at a local hospital.
"Every day you lose a friend. What can I keep for my children? There is no food, no medicine." He added that by Friday night the shelling had stopped but government snipers were occasionally shooting at people from rooftops.
Sami said only three people had been killed and six wounded despite the intense fighting. "Today was a miracle because it was one of the worst days," he said. "The hospital told us. The killed and injured were civilians."
Al Jazeera television quoted another rebel spokesman, Abdulbasset Abu Mzereiq, as saying five people had been killed, including a six-year-old child in a car hit by shellfire.
Accounts from Misrata, Libya's third biggest city about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, could not be independently verified because Libyan authorities have not allowed journalists to travel to the city and report from it freely.
CITY CUT OFF
Misrata, like many cities across Libya, rejected Gaddafi's rule in a revolt in February. In a violent crackdown, Gaddafi's forces restored control in most places in western Libya, leaving Misrata cut off and surrounded.
The rebels say they still control the city center and the sea port, but Gaddafi's forces have pushed into the center along Tripoli Street, the main thoroughfare.
A resident described one person killed by shellfire on Friday who was brought to hospital "in pieces." He said pro-Gaddafi troops tried to enter the city from the east and west, and from the Mediterranean cost to the north.
"(This) was defeated by the brave rebels. After failing in this attempt as usual they (Gaddafi troops) began indiscriminate shelling which targeted the city center and the port area and the surrounding areas," the resident told Reuters.
A Libyan living abroad who is in touch with people in Misrata said casualties had started arriving at the clinic in the city which is being used as a makeshift hospital. He said: "People are ... crying for help."