Image: A wounded boy lies in a Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded people from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata.
Esam al-Fetori  /  Reuters
A wounded boy lies in a Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded people from the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, at a port in Benghazi on April 3. The white ferry Ankara, which the Turkish government chartered and turned into a hospital ship, docked in the eastern Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Sunday to pick up more wounded. The ship will later head on to a port in Turkey where a field hospital had been set up.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/8/2011 5:00:08 AM ET 2011-04-08T09:00:08

More than 40 days of siege, shelling and sniper fire by Moammar Gadhafi's forces have exacted a bloody price in rebel-held Misrata, Libya's third-largest city and a coveted prize in the deadlocked conflict. NATO, leading airstrikes against Gadhafi's troops, said Thursday it is trying to find a way to break the assault.

The U.N. warned of a "dire" situation in the rebels' last major foothold in the Gadhafi-controlled western half of Libya, saying hundreds of people in Misrata have been killed and wounded and that residents are running short of water, food and medicine.

While rebels are holding out, Gadhafi's forces have made inroads. Government troops have taken control of a main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, and set up snipers' nests on nearby rooftops, including on the city's main high-rise. Mortars, shells and gunfire have pummeled holes into homes, mosques and a hospital in the city center, and streets are lined with burned-out cars and shops. Terrified families driven out by snipers have sought refuge in seaside areas, cramming into mosques, schools and strangers' homes.

Story: Fiercely pro-Gadhafi, Libya TV host leaps to fame

"It does not seem there is a safe place in Misrata any more," rebel spokesman Hassan al-Misrati said by phone. "They are using mortars, a lot of mortars, and firing anywhere. They do not care where it lands. This crazy man (Gadhafi) has turned hysterical and wants to kill as many people as he can.

"His forces have even attacked the cemetery. What is in the cemetery but dead people? But he doesn't care," al-Misrati said.

Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because the Libyan authorities have not allowed journalists to report freely from the city.

The urban warfare in Misrata, a city of 300,000, highlights the rebels' frustration with what they say is the slow pace of NATO airstrikes, meant to keep back Gadhafi's forces. Western officials have said it is difficult to act in Misrata because the regime's troops are too close to civilians.

But on Thursday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance is focusing attention on Misrata. She said the alliance's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, discussed the situation in the city with non-NATO partner nations taking part in the Libyan operation.

Rebels say NATO must act decisively and that they've given the alliance a detailed list of targets for airstrikes in areas abandoned by civilians.

"For every day of delay in lifting this siege of Misrata, more people are killed and injured," said one of the fighters who would only give his first name, Abdel-Salam, for fear of retribution.

Miseries abound for besieged Libyans

So far, 247 bodies have recovered, but the toll is likely higher because the fighting prevents bodies and wounded people from being taken to hospitals, rebel officials say. Last week, a Turkish ship evacuated dozens of wounded from the city, including men who said they had been shot and left to bleed after being dragged into the streets by Gadhafi loyalists.

A ship from the World Food Program reached Misrata's port for the first time on Thursday, delivering 600 tons of food as well as medical supplies from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, the Rome-based WFP said in a statement. The food, including flour, vegetable oil and high energy biscuits, are enough to feed 40,000 people for a month, it said.

'Very concerned'
Misrata, about 120 miles east of the capital Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, rose up against Gadhafi just a few days after the first protests against his 42-year-old regime erupted across Libya in mid-February. Residents opposed to Gadhafi quickly took control of the city.

Image: A man looks at a damaged house in central Misrata, Libya's third largest city, on March 30.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE  /  AFP - Getty Images
A Libyan man looks at a damaged house in central Misrata, Libya's third largest city, on March 30, as rebels held off government forces despite being surrounded by territory held by Gadhafi in western Libya.

But while much of eastern Libya fell to anti-government forces, Gadhafi's grip on the western part of the country proved to be stronger. His troops crushed resistance in the other main western city held by the rebels, Zawiya. Now Misrata is now the only major rebel stronghold in that area.

After more than a month of siege, Misrata's situation has become dire, said Valerie Amos, a top U.N. official who oversees emergency relief operations.

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"We are very concerned about people trapped in Misrata, including migrant workers," Amos said earlier this week, calling for a temporary cease-fire to allow civilians to leave the area. "The situation on the ground is critical for a large number of people who immediately need food, clean water and emergency medical assistance," she said.

Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Libyan government, claimed that Gadhafi's forces fire at Misrata only in self-defense. If reporters hear the sound of fighting there, he said, that means "rebels prepared and hoping for martyrdom have attacked our troops and we have returned fire," he said this week.

The fall of Misrata to Gadhafi would largely be a symbolic blow to the rebels, but not change the course of the war, said analyst Marko Papic of the U.S.-based think tank Stratfor. It has becoming increasingly clear that the rebels don't have the military capability to launch a western offensive, lessening the city's value as a potential bridgehead, Papic said.

The closest position of rebel forces in the east is 300 miles away, and between them stands the Gadhafi bastion of Sirte, which the opposition has tried and failed twice to march on. The best the rebel leadership based in the eastern city of Benghazi has been able to do is send some supplies by ship to Misrata.

Homemade guns
The defenders of Misrata, most of them young men without battle experience, are armed with knives, swords, handmade guns, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns.

They take shifts roaming the streets by day, trying to spot snipers and guarding the city's access roads. The local radio station broadcasts around the clock, spreading word of imminent attacks and helping residents cope with the siege.

Residents said many of Gadhafi's soldiers in the area have defected, and that the enemy's morale is low.

"They are forced into this battle. This is why they lose all the time," said Rida al-Montasser, a local activist, adding that he saw one of Gadhafi's soldiers handcuffed to an anti-aircraft gun to keep him from defecting.

Since Feb. 19, when the first protesters first chanted anti-Gadhafi slogans in the streets of Misrata, the city has rarely had a day of calm. Government forces have stepped up attacks since mid-March, disrupting communications as well as the flow of water and electricity.

Video: Friendly fire kills rebel fighters in Libya (on this page)

Residents report a shortage of baby formula and diapers, and say only five bakeries operate on a limited schedule, until they run out of flour. Bakeries in the city center are closed for fear of snipers.

The biggest snipers' nest of several dozen gunmen operates from the roof of the city's main high-rise, known as the Insurance Building. A hospital official, who lives a half-mile from that building and gave his first name as Nasser, said his house was hit three times by mortars and that another shell demolished his car.

Maternity hospital damaged
Tripoli Street has been particularly hard hit, with mosques, homes and a maternity hospital in the area damaged by shelling. During a recent visit to Misrata, an Associated Press reporter saw buildings with big holes torn into walls and black smoke billowing from broken windows. The street was lined with burned-out shops, two torched tanks and uprooted trees.

Political activist Mohamad Jaber said there was intermittent fighting Thursday and NATO planes had appeared over Misrata.

"The rebels fought with the snipers today and had a tough battle. They have managed to push them back from some parts of Tripoli Street. This is a major development," he said by phone.

In a video recently posted on Facebook, loudspeakers broadcast chants of "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," as the sound of shelling could be heard. Rebel flags fluttered in the main square and from rooftops, and rebels posed with anti-aircraft guns. In another scene, men were scene running from the area, apparently to seek shelter.

Another recently posted video showed several bodies lying on the floor of a hospital, including that of a child.

On Thursday, residents enjoyed a rare lull, in part because NATO warplanes were flying over the city, rebels said.

The most contested area now is the port, Misrata's only link to the world and until recently the rebels' supply line for ammunition from the east.

The port has come under heavy shelling, but remains in rebel hands, said Abdel-Salam, the fighter. If the port were to fall, he said, "this will be the end of the people of Misrata."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Friendly fire kills rebel fighters in Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Friendly fire kills rebel fighters in Libya

    >>> rebels went from bad to worse today. it's today what nato did do by accident that stoked the rage. we have sareport tonight from benghazi.

    >> reporter: this hospital in eastern libya sees wounded rebels every day, but today, it wasn't gadhafi who put them here. the rebels say it was nato . for the second time in less than a week, nato fighter jets appeared to have sdnaccidentally hit the right site. at least four were killed and a dozen wounded. nato made no comment saying they had to investigate the instant. it took place right outside of the oil town brega. five minutes ago, this checkpoint was quiet. now they have heard word that their tanks, rebel tanks have been bombed by nato planes. we have seen a stetdy stream of amblnlss going out and heavy arms going in. the fighters already angry nato wasn't doing enough to help them. now this. their dogs, this man cried. they're all dogs. back in washington, the general who led the u.s. operation in libya before handing control over to nato acknowledged the battle is looking more and more like a stalemate.

    >> i would like to know if you think a stalemate is an acceptable outcome of the conflict in libya ?

    >> my personal opinion, that is not the preferred solution.

    >> reporter: in eastern libya , no solution means more fighting. gadhafi hit the gates, the further east his forces have been in ten days. panicked followed by a quick retre retreat. this is what they have been doing over and over again, instead of digging in and fighting back, they turn and run. in the center of town, the rebels fired back. guided rockets aimed at an enemy they couldn't even see. the general's senate testimony raised another alarming issue. there are an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired rockets that are unaccounted for in libya . it's unclear if they're even in the country at all and they could pose a regional and international threat. ann?

Gallery: Gadhafi's children

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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