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Air attacks drive back Gaddafi

International airstrikes have forced Muammar Gaddafi's tanks back from the western city of Misrata, giving civilians who endured more than a week of attacks a respite.

Western diplomats are close to an agreement to let Nato assume responsibility for the no-fly zone and its warships have begun patrolling off Libya's Mediterranean coast.

A doctor in Misrata, 125 miles south-east of Tripoli, said tanks fled after the airstrikes began early on Wednesday.

He said the planes struck the aviation academy and spare ground outside the central hospital.

"There were very loud explosions. It was hard to see the planes," he said. "For the first time in a week the bakeries opened their doors."

He said the situation was still dangerous, with pro-Gaddafi snipers shooting at people from rooftops.

"Some of the tanks were hit and others fled," he said. "We fear the tanks that fled will return if the airstrikes stop."

The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata was a rare success for the rebels. The disorganised opposition holds much of the east but has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gaddafi's air defences and artillery just as the rebels were facing defeat.

Neither side has mustered the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict in the cities were they are locked in combat, such as Misrata and Zintan in the west and Ajdabiya, a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east.

In Zintan, a resident said Gaddafi's forces were at the base of a nearby mountain and were shelling in that area, but rebels forced their retreat from all but one side of the city.

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