Libyan rebels capture Misrata airport

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Libya rebels Wednesday captured Misrata airport after a fierce battle with Moamer Kadhafi’s troops, marking their first significant advance after weeks of being pinned back by the loyalists. The airport of Libya’s third city, which had been besieged for almost two months by Kadhafi’s forces, fell to the rebels after fighting that raged through the night, said an AFP correspondent at the scene.
The insurgents were Wednesday afternoon in full control of the complex, which also houses an African market and a prison. They celebrated the victory by cheering in the streets and setting ablaze tanks left behind by Gaddafi troops. Three bodies slain Gaddafi soldiers were seen lying nearby.
The capture of the airport is seen as significant as the city had been cut off from the outside world by Kadhafi’s forces, with the port being the only route in or out of the city.
Rights groups have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in the city of 500,000 people, who have been facing acute shortages of food and medical supplies. Insurgent forces captured 40 Grad rockets from the regime troops, whose mortar fire injured 13 rebels, the correspondent said. Inspired by the uprisings in other Arab nations, rebels have been fighting since mid-February to oust Gaddafi but have met with stiff resistance despite gaining a foothold in the eastern city of Benghazi.
A spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional Council in their main bastion of Benghazi in eastern Libya confirmed Misrata airport had been captured. “We took full control of Misrata airport and pushed back Gaddafi forces around 15 kilometres from airport,” said Abdel Busin. “The airport is in our control but is not free because it is still within range of Grad rockets” fired by Gaddafi retreating forces. Haj Mohammed, a Misrata rebel commander, had said on Tuesday that Kadhafi’s forces were slowly being pushed back westwards from Misrata along the coastal road toward the town of Zliten.
Rebels were using shipping containers to shield themselves from loyalist fire, and bulldozers were pushing them forward as the advance continued.
Meanwhile, a volley of missiles struck east of the Libyan capital Tripoli on Wednesday after intense overflights by NATO-led aircraft, a witness said. There was no immediate confirmation from the Western alliance. The munitions hits near Tajoura, a coastal town that was a focus of anti-government protests before a strong-armed crackdown by the authorities.