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Gaddafi rockets dent sense of security in Misrata

MYT 7:45:55 AM

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Four rockets landed in rebel-held Misrata for the first time in several weeks on Tuesday, signalling that the coastal city remains within range of Muammar Gaddafi's artillery fire.

A Libyan gestures as he stands at a house hit by a rocket fired by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, in the rebel-held city of Misrata, June 21, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Although no one was hurt in the attack, it dampened the relative sense of security among Misrata's residents, who had believed the siege on their city was broken after rebels drove out loyalist forces in mid-May.

"Everyone is worried. We don't know where to go anymore. Only when I die will I be safe," said Mohammed Mabrouk, who lives near one of two houses hit by the rockets. The other two landed in open areas.

Fighting has been largely on Misrata's far western and eastern edges, where the rebel rag-tag army is sustaining heavier casualties by the day from the better equipped and better trained government forces.

Four rebel fighters were killed and 60 others were wounded in fighting with loyalist forces on Tuesday in Dafniya, west of Misrata, where they lost 11 fighters a day earlier.

Rebels have made slow progress since NATO countries joined their fight to overthrow Gaddafi in March but are now trying to inch towards Tripoli from Misrata, east of the capital, and from the Western Mountains region to its southwest.

The going is especially tough in Misrata.

"Gaddafi's forces have moved forward about a kilometre," Dr Mohammed Grigda said at the field hospital in Dafniya just outside Misrata. It was impossible to verify the information but a Reuters reporter in Dafniya saw that rebel mortar positions had edged back slightly.

Shelling by government forces positioned outside Misrata has been limited to neighbourhoods on the edge of the city. A child was killed and two others were wounded on Monday when a rocket exploded in a house near the port in the east.

In the Western Mountains, where the rebels made significant gains in recent weeks, NATO launched four air strikes against loyalist forces outside the town of Nalut near the border with Tunisia, a rebel spokesman there said. Gaddafi's soldiers fired 20 rockets into the town, but no one was hurt.

U.S. SANCTIONS

NATO's operations came under scrutiny on Sunday after the alliance for the first time admitted killing civilians in an air strike on Tripoli. Libya's accusations on Monday that a further 19 people died in a separate attack has raised more questions.

NATO said it lost an unmanned helicopter drone over Libya on Tuesday but denied a Libyan state television report that it was a manned Apache aircraft.

"NATO confirms it has not lost any attack helicopter," NATO military spokesman Wing Commander Mike Bracken said in a statement. An "unmanned autonomous helicopter drone" had lost contact with its command centre, it said.

Gaddafi allies denounce the bombing campaign as a foreign attempt to force a change of government and seize the North African state's oil. NATO states defend the operation as a UN-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday brushed aside doubts about how long Britain could maintain its role in the NATO campaign, saying it could stay for as long as needed.

Senior British military officers have complained about the strain on defence resources of fighting in Libya and Afghanistan while facing cuts in military spending to rein in a national budget deficit.

NATO admitted on Sunday its weapon destroyed a house in Tripoli. Libyan officials said nine civilians died.

Franco Frattini, foreign minister of NATO-member Italy, said civilian casualties put the mission's credibility at stake. The Arab League condemned the loss of life.

Libyan officials say NATO forces have killed more than 700 civilians, but have not presented evidence of such large numbers of civilian deaths and NATO denies them.

Libya says one of Gaddafi's sons and three grandchildren were killed six weeks ago when Gaddafi's Tripoli compound was hit.

In a further blow to Libya's leaders, the United States on Tuesday blacklisted nine companies owned or controlled by Gaddafi's government. The sanctions prohibit U.S. transactions with the companies, including the Arab Turkish Bank, North Africa International Bank and North Africa Commercial Bank.

The international coalition backing the rebels secured its U.N. mandate after intense diplomatic jostling and many countries in the Arab world, Africa and beyond are ill at ease at the sight of NATO bombs on African soil.

"These missions are extremely difficult. They are extremely dangerous. We faced this situation in Afghanistan, we faced it in the past in Kosovo," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing.

"Overall, however, our view is that the NATO mission in Libya has been an essential component of our effort to make clear to Gaddafi that his days are numbered," she added.

The alliance must also keep partners on board such as U.N. Security Council member China, where Mahmoud Jibril, head of the executive board of the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council, arrived on Tuesday for a two-day visit.

Asked whether Jibril's visit marked a policy adjustment for China, which tends to stay out of domestic conflicts elsewhere, a Foreign Ministry spokesman described the council as "an important domestic political force".

"China is willing to continue maintaining contact with the National Transitional Council and its relevant parties, to seek a political solution to the problems in Libya," he said.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Washington, Cairo and Beijing bureaux; Writing by Joseph Nasr and Mark John; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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