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Tribal chiefs' plea over Misrata clashes

Libyan tribal leaders are trying to get rebels in the city of Misrata to lay down their arms within 48 hours after a day of fierce clashes between opposition fighters and Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

If negotiations fail, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said yesterday that tribal chiefs may send armed supporters into the city of 300,000, to fight the rebels.

In the meantime, the Libyan military is halting operations in Misrata, Mr Kaim added.

However, the Misrata area is not known to have very large or dominant tribes and rebels in the city questioned how much support Gaddafi had among them.

It is also unclear whether the rebels would be willing to negotiate, particularly after claiming to have forced government forces to retreat.

Mr Kaim said tribal chiefs are still trying to get in touch with the rebels.

Opposition officials have confirmed that Gaddafi's forces have pulled back, but expressed doubts that the regime will fully withdraw from the city.

Misrata, the only major rebel stronghold in Gaddafi-controlled western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted long-time leaders.

Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with Nato airstrikes that began last month.

Hundreds of people have been killed in two months of a government siege backed by tanks, mortars and snipers firing from rooftops.

Late last week, rebels drove snipers from a tall downtown building, in a setback for Gaddafi loyalists who had controlled the city centre. The rebels have defended positions around Misrata's seaport.

“They have no mercy. They are pounding the city hard,” Misrata resident Osama al-Shahmi said of Gaddafi's forces, speaking after being evacuated from the city by boat.

Also yesterday, two aid vessels carrying 1,400 Misrata evacuees, most of them foreign workers, arrived in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, eastern Libya. Such ships have been ferrying people, including migrant workers and wounded Libyans, from Misrata to Benghazi in recent days.

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