MISRATA, Libya — Libya's rebel fighters scaled back their attacks on the cities of Sirte and Bani Walid on Monday after taking heavy casualties during the weekend.
Medical staff took advantage of a relatively calm morning, moving the main field hospital from Hesha to the town of Bwerat, reducing the distance from the front line from 60 miles to 30 miles.
Arriving by car from Sirte late Sunday evening, chairman of the military council Ramadan Zalmore said his men concentrated on totally securing the outer city areas but stepped back their offensive inside Sirte.
“You must keep in mind that fighting within any city is difficult,” he said. “There are many families trapped inside. They [Gaddafi troops] are firing from inside houses but we cannot attack them with the same weapons because of the families.”
Zalmore said now that the outer parts of Sirte is secure, the rebels aim to secure an exit for families trapped inside. The problem, he added, is that many are in effect being held hostage by Gaddafi forces, providing them with a human shield.
Gaddafi's troops continued to fire Grad missiles, rockets and the occasional cluster bombs while the rebel forces fired back with guns and RPG’s, unwilling to risk civilian casualties. Zalmore said 10 more families were freed from Sirte Sunday.
The rebels made some gains, winning control of the army airport, according to rebel fighter Yousif Hussein, 26, who arrived in Misrata by helicopter for treatment after he was shot in the neck by a 14.5 mm bullet during the advance.
Hussein said the rebels captured many Gaddafi troops as they moved forward and seized a 5 kilogram stash of hashish from the men.
Arriving on the first of five emergency flights from the new field hospital location, Dr. Faiti Alzawari said Sunday had been so uncharacteristically quiet that many of the doctors went home to see their families.
“Our fighters did not move from their front,” he said. “Today it was only defensive fighting. Most injuries were sustained by spotters driving inside the city to check enemy positions.”
Alzawari said the first injuries only began arriving in late Sunday afternoon. Many were in critical condition but ambulance drivers said the new field hospital location improved their chances dramatically. By late Sunday evening 19 injured had arrived in Misrata for treatment with four dead.
Although the death toll dropped dramatically from Saturday’s devastating figures, rebel fighters did receive a severe blow when high commander of the Southern Sirte frontline Ibrahim Halbouse was hit by a Grad rocket and was critically injured. The scene was emotional as he arrived by helicopter transfer to Misrata’s Central Hospital. Prominent members of the military council, rebel leaders and relatives led cries of "Allah Akbar" as the craft touched down on the helipad.
Halbrouse was breathing through a respirator after being hit by shrapnel in the neck. Doctors said his condition was critical. The respect and admiration for this civilian military leader was clear from the crowd’s reaction to his condition. Many cried openly, others silently wept, while some hugged each other as the aircraft doors were opened.
“We hope he is stable,” said military spokesperson Ibrahim Betamal as he helped lift the injured man from the back of the helicopter.
The advance on Bani Walid has also slowed to a standstill after a long and frustrating battle to enter the city. Fighters came under heavy mortar and sniper attack Sunday.
Meanwhile, Moussa Ibrahim, spokesman for the Gaddafi regime, accused NATO of killing 354 people Friday in airstrikes. NATO refuted the claims as unfounded and inconclusive.