MISRATA: Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Qaddafi launched a new armored incursion into the besieged rebel city Misrata on Monday ahead of the funeral of his son, killed in a NATO-led air strike.
Overnight fighting around Libya’s third largest city killed at least six people and wounded dozens, medics said, after the deadly air raid sparked angry protests against Western diplomatic residences in Tripoli.
"Qaddafi’s tanks are attempting to enter the city through Al-Ghiran," a southwestern suburb of Misrata near the airport, a rebel official said.
At least four or five tanks, which had been concealed at the government-held airport to avoid NATO air strikes, were engaged in the offensive, another rebel official said.
AFP correspondents in the Mediterranean port city heard heavy tank fire from 6:00 am (0400 GMT), answered by heavy machinegun fire from the rebels.
"We have counted six dead and several dozen wounded," a medical official told AFP at around 9:30 am (0730 GMT) after the overnight clashes. The official had no immediate word on how many casualties were civilians.
"We have seven intensive care beds but at the moment there are eight who need them," another medic said.
"The eighth has to do without a respirator and the nurses have to help him breathe manually. If we get another critically ill patient, he will die," said the doctor, a Western volunteer.
The last major rebel bastion in western Libya, Misrata is surrounded by pro-Qaddafi forces and entirely dependent on supply by sea.
Loyalist troops have repeatedly pounded the port, killing two rebel fighters on Sunday alone, witnesses said.
In the capital, preparations were under way for the funerals after afternoon prayers of Qaddafi’s second youngest son Seif Al-Arab, and three of his grandchildren.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters early on Sunday that the house of Qaddafi’s son "was attacked tonight with full power.
"The attack resulted in the martyrdom of brother Seif Al-Arab Moamer Qaddafi, 29 years old, and three of the leader’s grandchildren," Ibrahim added.
Qaddafi and his wife were in the building with his son, Ibrahim said, calling the strike "a direct operation to assassinate the leader," who he said "is in good health — he wasn’t harmed. His wife is also in good health."
Ibrahim said Qaddafi’s location was "leaked."
"They knew about him being there, or expected him for some reason."
The children killed were a boy and a girl, both aged two, and a baby girl of four months, he said.
Demonstrators torched vacant British and Italian diplomatic buildings in Tripoli in response, prompting Britain to expel the Libyan ambassador.
"The Vienna Convention requires the Qaddafi regime to protect diplomatic missions in Tripoli," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
"By failing to do so that regime has once again breached its international responsibilities and obligations," he added.
Italy boosted security checks on Sunday when Qaddafi threatened to "bring the battle to Italy" after the Italian government’s decision to take part in the NATO-led air strikes.
But on Monday Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sought to play down the threats which he attributed to the Libyan leader’s "disappointment" in Italy.
"I would not attach much importance to this statement," Berlusconi said.
"I think that (Qaddafi’s) reaction is dictated by the disappointment provoked by Italy and is linked to the friendship treaty" the two countries signed two years ago, he told journalists in Milan.
Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim called the attacks on diplomatic missions "regrettable," and said Tripoli would take responsibility for repairs.
He said police had been overwhelmed by the crowds.
The Western alliance vowed more strikes, although the operation commander stated "we do not target individuals."
"All NATO’s targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the… regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas," said Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard.
He said raids would continue until threats against civilians ceased and all of Qaddafi’s forces "have verifiably withdrawn to their bases, and until there is full, free and unhindered access to humanitarian aid to all those in Libya who need it."
China renewed its call for a ceasefire and urged NATO not to exceed the terms of the UN Security Council resolution which provided for military action to protect civilians.
"The Chinese side has all along opposed any actions that overstep UN Security Council authorization, we hope that all sides can immediately cease fire and politically resolve the current crisis in Libya through dialogue," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
An international coalition began carrying out strikes on March 19 under the UN Security Council mandate. NATO took command of operations on March 31.