Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Misrata gloss

The BBC's John Simpson saw damage and pro-Gaddafi demos in Misrata
Misrata is one of the key battlefields of the Libyan uprising. The rebels took control of it 40 days ago and have held it ever since, besieged by pro-Gaddafi forces.
The unsubstantiated accounts of people inside the town, and the videos they have sent out, have been the only glimpses the world has had of conditions there.
The government in Tripoli maintains that a ceasefire is now in place and offered on Monday to take the international journalists currently based in the capital to see Misrata for themselves.
But although the official version says there is no fighting there at present, we were not taken into Misrata. Instead we skirted around it and were shown a place on the edge of the town which was approximately 5km (three miles) from the centre.
There were many signs of fighting along our way and apparent evidence, too, of missile and rocket strikes by the coalition forces. Yet we saw one mobile artillery gun positioned out in the open at a roundabout, and down several side-streets armoured vehicles seemed to be parked.
Presumably it is too risky for the coalition to attack these targets.
Gaddafi loyalists Any loss of civilian lives would be pounced on by the Libyan government, and would be a huge embarrassment to Nato. This, after all, is an operation intended to save civilian lives from the attacks of Col Gaddafi's forces.
As sometimes seems to happen with official visits laid on by the Libyan authorities, there were moments when it was legitimate to wonder if someone was trying to gild the lily. As our coach drove past the garden of a house in Misrata, there was a sudden burst of flame as something - possibly a generator - caught fire.
Maybe it was just a coincidence but if it was a deliberate effort to persuade us that the rebels, or the coalition, were carrying out attacks here, it was unnecessary. There are plenty of signs of fierce violence everywhere.
What was certainly not a coincidence was the arrival of dozens of pro-Gaddafi demonstrators, dancing, waving pictures of their leader and sometimes firing their guns in the air.
Their demonstration might have been organised but it certainly did not look as though anyone who took part had been coerced. It was a reminder that Col Gaddafi still has a sizeable number of genuine supporters in western Libya.
As final proof of the careful planning of the occasion, an entire outside broadcast unit from Libyan television was on hand to film it, complete with satellite dish to enable the pictures to be broadcast live around the country and abroad.
Crucial town The rebels besieged in the town are thought to be in a pretty bad condition, short of food, water and medicine. But it is reasonable to assume that they are still holding out, since we were not taken to the centre of Misrata under the protection of the supposed ceasefire.
Col Gaddafi's men badly want to recapture Misrata. It lies on the coastal road from Sirte to Tripoli, which is effectively the only route the advancing rebels can take.
If the Gaddafi loyalists can finally reduce it, virtually the whole of western Libya will form a fortress blocking the rebels' advance.
Every town and city in the west contains rebel supporters like those who are holding out in Misrata but there is no doubt that his support is far greater in the region around Tripoli than it is in the east of the country.
We were only allowed to glimpse the situation from the far edge of town, then bundled away after 40 minutes. This was, the authorities said, for our own safety.
But if the rebels still present a threat to the safety of Misrata's suburbs after nearly six weeks of fighting, then they are not finished yet. Especially since they now have the support of the coalition.
air strikes map 28 March 
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