MISRATA, Libya (AFP) – Libyan rebels fought to take Misrata’s airport on Thursday after pushing back Moamer Kadhafi’s forces from the city’s lifeline sea port as the oil-rich country’s tribes urged the strongman to quit.
As a UN panel arrived in Libya to investigate violence and human rights abuses, rebels in Misrata said they were confident victory was “very close” for them in the strategic port city.
“Our freedom fighters have managed to defeat the soldiers of Kadhafi” by forcing them out of Misrata, Khalid Azwawi, head of the local transition committee, told a news conference late Wednesday.
“They managed to force them to leave, but not very far. That’s why Kadhafi is trying to bomb the port,” he said.
Rebel fighters backed by NATO air strikes said Wednesday they drove Kadhafi’s troops out of missile range of the port of Misrata, an aid conduit for the city of half a million people under siege for more than seven weeks.
The fighting continued around Misrata’s airport on Thursday morning, according to the rebels.
“Significant Kadhafi forces” were concentrated around the airport a few kilometres (miles) west of the besieged city, rebel military chief Ibrahim Bet-Almal said, noting “cooperation between (his) forces and NATO.”
“We’re trying to clear this area” on the city’s outskirts which was rocked by continuous explosions on Wednesday night as missiles and rockets fell randomly, he said.
Their comrades defending Zintan, in the mountains southwest of Tripoli, also pushed back Kadhafi forces who bombarded the town with at least 20 Grad rockets, wounding three people and damaging a hospital, before retreating.
An AFP team in the town late Wednesday witnessed rebels firing off celebratory salvos into the night as a NATO warplane flew overhead.
Meanwhile, the United States opened another lifeline by authorising Americans to buy oil, gas and petroleum products from the rebels’ Transitional National Council.
“The people of Libya are brave and defiant but we need access to oil revenues so that we can feed, protect and defend our families,” the council said in welcoming the move by the US Treasury Department.
Chiefs or representatives of 61 tribes from across the North African country called for an end to Kadhafi’s four-decade rule, in a joint statement released Wednesday by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy.
“The Libya of tomorrow, once the dictator has gone, will be a united Libya, with Tripoli as its capital and where we will at last be free to build a civil society according to our own wishes,” it said.
Levy has become an unofficial spokesman in Paris for the revolt and is credited with pressing President Nicolas Sarkozy to mobilise international political and military support for it.
“Each of the tribes in Libya is represented by at least a representative. In this list of 61 signatures, some tribes are represented 100 percent, others are still divided,” he said.
On Tuesday, Kadhafi’s troops fired volleys of Grad rockets at the port of Misrata, killing one African refugee and wounding at least a dozen others, six of them seriously.
But having secured the port, Misrata’s rebels were bolstered by the arrival of a ship carrying humanitarian supplies including food and medicines, as well as at least one boat loaded with arms, an AFP correspondent reported.
The International Organisation for Migration said in a statement late Wednesday that it managed to evacuate 935 refugees to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi despite heavy shelling.
“The shelling of the port area meant the IOM-chartered boat, the Red Star One, was forced to delay docking until Wednesday morning, once the situation was calmer,” it said.
Further west, Kadhafi forces were massed in force in an apparent bid to recapture the Dehiba border post with Tunisia, a Western military source said on Wednesday.
Witnesses said the area was rocked by artillery and mortar fire.
“There is a lot of fire in the area at the foot of the mountains,” said a taxi driver at the border, 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Ras Jdir, the main crossing point into Tunisia that the rebels seized on Thursday.
Overnight, the United Nations said a three-member international panel arrived in Libya on Wednesday to begin a UN-ordered inquiry into the violence and abuses since Kadhafi forces began a crackdown against protesters in mid-February.
The team was led by Egyptian war crimes expert Cher if Bassiouni and included Jordanian-Palestinian lawyer Asam Ader and Philippe Kitsch, a Canadian who was the first president of the International Criminal Court.
The inquiry was “ordered after reports emerged of serious human rights abuses against civilians in Libya, where initially peaceful protests have transformed into open conflict between opposition groups and the Kadhafi regime,” it said.