At least 30 people were killed and more than 100 wounded, most of them rebel fighters, in a fierce offensive by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces Friday on the outskirts of Libya's rebel-held port city of Misrata. By nightfall, Misrata's rebels retained control of the farmland area known as Dafniya, some 18 miles to the west. Some rebels said they wanted to advance further west and capture Zlitin, the next regime-controlled town on the highway to Tripoli, with the help of recently deployed U.K. and French helicopters.
Others argued that Zlitin's residents must rise up first against Col. Gadhafi in order not to provoke tribal warfare. A British spokesman said Friday that U.K. Apache helicopters had been in action over Misrata on Thursday, destroying a regime military communications installation and multiple rocket launchers. Rebels said jets from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombed some of the advancing pro-Gadhafi forces Friday, a claim that couldn't immediately be confirmed. Casualties among the pro-regime forces were unknown. But an officer captured by rebels at the frontline said some 120 volunteer fighters were bused by the regime to Zlitin on Wednesday to back up soldiers in the offensive led by the Khamis Brigade, a unit named after and commanded by one of Col. Gadhafi's sons. "We came to Misrata to strike the rebels," the officer said during an interrogation by a rebel leader, witnessed inside a makeshift rebel camp. "They brought us as sacrificial lambs, believe me." A spokesman from the local military council said the fighting was some of the fiercest in the city's long battle against the Libyan government forces. Rebel witnesses said Col. Gadhafi's forces had attempted to retake Dafniya early Friday with several tanks, armored vehicles and rocket launchers. The tanks were firing at anything that moved on the coastal highway between Tripoli and Misrata, they said, making the road unusable. Many said that most of the casualties among the rebels were caused by artillery fire. Wing Commander Mike Bracken, a NATO spokesman, said Friday the front line near Zlitin is "volatile and unstable." "Whether Gadhafi forces are able to launch a large-scale attack remains unconfirmed," he said. Heavy rocket fire turned some of parts of Dafniya, a scenic area of pine, olive and palm trees, into smoldering fields. In one farm, rebel fighters rested behind earth berms as rockets whizzed overhead and gunfire crackled in the distance. Some fighters ahead launched rocket-propelled grenades in response. One fighter, Lutfi al-Ameen, said his unit was involved in close combat with pro-regime forces stationed five farms away after they tried to enter Dafniya from several areas. Asked if rebels would try to capture Zlitin he said: "It's crucial they [Zlitin residents] move first." Earlier rocket explosions were heard nonstop from early morning in Misrata. By midday, pickup trucks filled with rebel fighters were seen heading toward Dafniya. A flatbed truck laden with ammunition was also seen on its way to provide reinforcements. On a beach on the way to Dafniya, rebels were seen firing Russian-made Grad rockets from a launcher they had seized from pro-regime forces. A heavy stream of ambulances and emergency crews used an old road that hugs the shoreline to bring the dead and wounded to Misrata. Hundreds of people gathered outside Al-Hikma Hospital, which had posted a list of the casualties from the fighting. Doctors at Al-Hikma, which is akin to a private polyclinic, couldn't cope with the flow of casualties. Two triage tents setup in the parking lot were filled to capacity as the bodies of the dead were piled up into the pediatric and orthopedic clinics. "Identity unknown," read papers pasted on two body bags. A man in the hallway sobbed hysterically for his dead brother. Inside Misrata, rebels were on high alert and setting up checkpoints across the city to stop and search vehicles. The latest offensive by Col. Gadhafi's forces is believed to be an attempt to preempt rebels from advancing toward Tripoli, 120 miles to the west, or to Sirte, some 150 miles southeast of Misrata. The rebels appear to be undecided over whether to make an advance on either city, or remain in Misrata to retain control of the city, which they recaptured in May after a long and devastating siege. At a news conference held by the council on Thursday in Misrata, the council's spokesman, Fathi Bashagha, said the rebels wanted to advance toward Tripoli and then to Sirte. However, another spokesman said they needed to be cautious about advancing, and would only move toward the coastal town of Zlitin—the first large town west of Misrata on the road to Tripoli—when there is enough opposition within the town to rise up against government forces. So far, some fighters from Zlitin have joined the rebels in Misrata in their fight against the regime.