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NATO Bombs Rock Tripoli, Libya Rebels Advance


A security man inspects the damage to a building following an air raid on the Libyan capital Tripoli. Jets screamed in low over Tripoli early on Tuesday, carrying out a series of strikes in quick succession, after witnesses reported two others near state media offices a few hours before. (AFP/File/Mahmud Turkia)

TRIPOLI - A NATO bombing blitz rocked Tripoli Tuesday while rebels in besieged Misrata said they are pushing back Moamer Gadhafi's forces and the UN warned Libya is being paralyzed by widespread shortages.

Jets screamed in low over the Libyan capital in the early hours of the morning, carrying out an unusually heavy bombardment over roughly three hours, an AFP correspondent said.

Late Monday, witnesses reported two explosions in the capital as jets flew overhead, adding that smoke was rising from a site near the offices of Libyan television and state news agency JANA.

The blasts came after NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said time was running out for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who "should realize sooner rather than later that there's no future for him or his regime."

Rebels fighting to oust Gadhafi said they have driven his forces back from around the rebel-held western city Misrata and were poised to make another thrust.

After heavy clashes, the rebels controlled a stretch of coastal road west of Misrata, Libya's third city which Gadhafi's forces have laid siege to for more than two months, forcing thousands to flee.

In all, the United Nations said Monday that nearly 750,000 people have fled Libya since Gadhafi's forces launched an offensive against anti-government demonstrators.

"The conflict, the breakdown of state infrastructure and shortages of cash and fuel are causing serious problems to the population of Libya," Valerie Amos, UN chief humanitarian co-ordinator, told the UN Security Council.

"Widespread shortages are paralyzing the country in ways which will impact gravely on the general population in the months ahead, particularly for the poorest and the most vulnerable," Amos told ambassadors from the 15-nation council.

The Red Cross said meanwhile said it delivered a shipment of humanitarian aid to Misrata amid concerns Gadhafi's forces may have dropped mines into the harbour from helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem.

And the International Organization for Migration said it had growing accounts from refugees arriving in Italy indicating an overloaded boat carrying up to 600 people capsized off the Libyan coast on Friday.

On the battle front, the rebels forced Gadhafi's troops about 15 kilometres from Misrata on Monday, advancing to Dafnia and ready to move on Zliten, the next major town on the road to Tripoli, an AFP correspondent said.

Ahmad Hassan, a rebel spokesman in Misrata, said the insurgents had also "liberated" areas south and east of the city, killing many Gadhafi troops and seizing a large amount of weapons. Eighteen rebels and civilians were wounded.

The report could not be immediately verified.

NATO chief Rasmussen said time was running out for Gadhafi, who would ultimately lose his decades-old grip on power given the "wind of change" sweeping the Arab world, the death of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and mounting pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, 70 representatives from 25 Libyan cities that have remained under the control of Gadhafi's regime, including Tripoli, pledged allegiance to the rebellion in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

"As we continue our support for the 17th February uprising and, in defiance of the regime's claims, we announce unequivocally our allegiance to and trust in the National Transitional Council (NTC)," they said in a statement.

Anti-regime sentiment is also alive and well only 40 kilometres west of Tripoli in Zawiya, which has been under the control of Gadhafi's forces for the past month.

"Gadhafi is a dictator," said one Zawiya shopkeeper who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding he thought that out of the population of the town "95 per cent are against the regime."

Another shopkeeper reported that clashes between rebels and regime forces had lasted for four hours overnight between Sunday and Monday.

Because people are afraid, he said, many say they support the Gadhafi regime, but "in reality, 90 per cent are against the regime."

But the fighting has been heaviest in and around Misrata, a make-or-break city in the Libyan conflict about 200 kilometres east of the capital.

The latest shipment of aid to land in the port on Monday morning was carrying surgical kits, spare parts to repair water and electrical supply systems, and 8,000 jars of baby food, the Red Cross said in a statement.

The shipment was laid on by the IOM whose spokesman said meanwhile they were getting a growing number of reports that a ship carrying 600 passengers capsized off the coast Tripoli on Friday.

"Some of those who were shipwrecked managed to swim back to the coast," IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told AFP.

"The witnesses talked of bodies washed up on the coast," Chauzy said, without being able to give a death toll.

Italian coast guards and fisherman, meanwhile, saved all 528 refugees from Libya after their boat hit rocks off the island of Lampedusa in an operation a rescuer described as a "miracle." Among the refugees were 24 pregnant women.

World powers have promised $250 million in humanitarian aid to the rebels and said the Gadhafi regime's frozen overseas assets, estimated at $60 billion, would be used later to assist the Libyan opposition.

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