Libya crisis: Allies join fight for city of Misrata

media captionCol Gaddafi appeared on Libyan TV making a defiant address to supporters

International forces have launched new air strikes near Libya's rebel-held western city of Misrata, witnesses say.

Forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi initially pulled back, but Misrata residents say snipers have continued to target people from rooftops.

Col Gaddafi's forces also resumed their pounding of Zintan, near the Tunisian border, according to reports.

The fighting comes as Western leaders debate who leads the intervention, with the US keen to hand over to Nato.

A Misrata resident told Reuters by telephone: "This morning, air strikes twice hit the airbase where Gaddafi's brigades are based.

"Two people were killed by snipers an hour ago in the centre of the town. Their bodies are now at the hospital, which I visited a while ago. Shooting is still going on there now."

A doctor in the city also told the BBC that snipers were continuing to shoot at civilians, and confirmed at least one person had been killed.

Witnesses said tanks pulled back from their positions, from where they have been spearheading a siege of the city for days.

There are also reports of fierce fighting between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces in the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya.

Residents fleeing the town described shelling, gunfire and houses on fire.

image captionAjdabiya, west of Benghazi, is now the front line for rebel and Gaddafi forces

Earlier, Col Gaddafi made his first public appearance in a week and gave a short speech to a crowd of supporters in Tripoli.

He urged "all Islamic armies" to join him, saying: "We will be victorious."

Western warplanes have flown more than 300 sorties over Libya in recent days and more than 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired.

After sunset on Tuesday, witnesses reported more anti-aircraft fire and the distant sound of explosions in Tripoli.

Before dawn on Wednesday, a series of explosions were also heard in the Libyan capital.

The coalition has not confirmed any reports of air strikes overnight on Tuesday.

Naval blockade

Meanwhile, ships from Nato nations have started patrolling off the Libyan coast to enforce a UN arms embargo against Col Gaddafi's regime.

A spokesman for the Western military alliance, Canadian Brigadier General Pierre St Amand, said six vessels were taking part in the first day of patrols.

They aim to intercept and board ships suspected of ferrying arms to the Libyan government.

"If after inspection, doubts remain as to the legitimacy of the cargo, the vessel will be diverted to a designated port for further inspection," Gen St-Amand said.

Nato members are currently holding talks about assuming responsibility for the no-fly zone over Libya.

Turkey, Nato's sole Muslim member, is an integral part of the naval blockade but expressed concern about the alliance taking over command of the no-fly zone from the US.

US defence secretary Robert Gates has arrived in the Egyptian capital Cairo for talks on both Libya and Egypt's hoped-for transition to democracy following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

He was previously in Moscow, where President Dmitry Medvedev criticised what he called the "indiscriminate use of force" by coalition aircraft in Libya.

Mr Gates rejected the criticism of the air strikes, saying Col Gaddafi was lying about civilian casualties.

Russia abstained from last week's UN Security Council resolution that authorised armed intervention in Libya to protect civilians.