Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's snipers and tanks are terrorizing civilians in the coastal city of Misrata, and the U.S. military said Tuesday it was "considering all options" in response to dire conditions there that have left people cowering in darkened homes and scrounging for food and rainwater.
Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on military targets. But conditions have deteriorated sharply in Misrata, the last major city in western Libya held by the rebel force trying to end Gadhafi's four-decade rule. Residents of the city 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, say shelling and sniper attacks are unrelenting. A doctor said tanks opened fire on a peaceful protest on Monday.
"The number of dead are too many for our hospital to handle," said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if the city falls to Gadhafi's troops. As for food, he said, "We share what we find and if we don't find anything, which happens, we don't know what to do."
Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi's forces are strong enough to hold Misrata or Ajdabiya, a key city in the east that is also a daily battleground. But the airstrikes and missiles that are the weapons of choice for international forces may be of limited use.
"When there's fighting in urban areas and combatants are mixing and mingling with civilians, the options are vastly reduced," said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch. "I can imagine the pressures and desires to protect civilians in Misrata and Ajdabiya are bumping up against the concerns about causing harms to the civilians you seek to protect."
It is all but impossible to verify accounts within the two cities, which have limited communications and are now blocked to rights monitors such as the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the force — with more enthusiasm than discipline — has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gadhafi's air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.
Despite the U.S. fears for Misrata, the Obama administration is eager relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition. With NATO divided, France on Tuesday proposed the creation of a political steering committee to run the operation. If accepted, the committee's job might be to bring order to what some observers has said seems a chaotic effort by countries with differing objectives.
Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east, has been under fought over for a week. Outside the city, a ragtag band of hundreds of fighters milled about on Tuesday, clutching mortars, grenades and assault rifles. Some wore khaki fatigues. One man sported a bright white studded belt.
Some men clambered up power lines in the rolling sand dunes of the desert, squinting as they tried to see Gadhafi's forces inside the city. The group periodically came under artillery attacks, some men scattering and others holding their ground.
"Gadhafi is killing civilians inside Ajdabiya," said Khaled Hamid, who said he been in Gadhafi's forces but defected to the rebels.
Ahmed Buseifi, 32, said he was in Libya's special forces for nine years before joining the opposition. He said other rebellious special forces had entered Ajdabiya and Brega, another contested city, hoping to disrupt government supply lines. The airstrikes, he said, leveled the playing field.
"If not for the West we would not have been able to push forward," he said.
A U.S. fighter jet on a strike mission against a government missile site crashed overnight in eastern Libya. Both crewmen ejected safely as the aircraft spun from the sky during the third night of the U.S. and European air campaign.
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