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22 killed as Libyan rebels make key gains in besieged western city

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Explain it to me: Mideast/African unrest
  • NEW: At least 22 people are killed in Misrata, a resident tells CNN
  • NATO says drone strikes took out a rocket launcher near Misrata
  • Misrata resident says Gadhafi is trying to disguise his defeat
  • The rebels say they have regained control of Misrata's main street

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Rebels claimed a significant breakthrough Saturday in Misrata, a bloody stage in the battle for Libya against forces loyal to strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

At least 22 people were killed and 65 others injured in the fierce fighting, a Misrata resident told CNN.

A majority died in the shelling by Gadhafi's forces in western Misrata, where loyalists still maintain positions around the city gates, but several people were killed by unexploded bombs in the central city, said the resident, identified only as Mohammed for safety reasons.

The government said its soldiers were withdrawing and would be replaced by tribal fighters. Mohammed said Gadhafi was simply trying to disguise his army's defeat.

After days of street battles, rebels regained control of the city center and the main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, which had become notorious for rooftop snipers, Mohammed said.

An opposition spokesman, also not identified for safety reasons, said the street would be reopened once unexploded ordnances were defused. Mohammed said residents were trying to restore telecommunications in the central city.

CNN could not independently verify information from Misrata.

The reported rebel gains came as the United States conducted its first Predator drone airstrikes Saturday afternoon, said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Darryn James.

Keeping with U.S. practice not to comment on drone strikes, the Pentagon offered no other information.

NATO, however, said drone strikes took out a multiple rocket launcher used by Gadhafi's forces to target civilians in the Misrata area.

Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Khaim said earlier that Gadhafi's military was withdrawing from Misrata and that tribal leaders would deal with the rebels.

"The situation in Misrata will be eased and will be dealt with by the tribes surrounding Misrata," Khaim told reporters. "You will see how they will be swift and quick and fast."

He said the residents of Libya's third largest city have been in the grip of the conflict.

"The tribal leaders have issued an ultimatum to the military saying they will deal with the situation if the military cannot do it. ... They will speak with the rebels and, if there is no solution, they will fight the rebels."

But in the de facto rebel capital, Benghazi, opposition spokesman Ahmed Bani reacted to Khaim's comments with laughter and derision.

"This confirms that our rebels in Misrata have liberated Misrata and that Libya is still in one piece, not two, the way Gadhafi hoped," Bani said. "In regards to the tribes fighting the rebels; how would you believe that a person will fight his brother? And who are the tribes that are supporting Gadhafi, anyway?"

Bani said some of Gadhafi's fighters were negotiating to surrender their weapons to the rebels in exchange for the assurances that they would not be harmed. A wounded loyalist soldier told the rebels that he had not eaten in five days.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the battle for Misrata, under a bloody siege from Gadhafi's forces for seven weeks and the scene of some of the deadliest battles in the rebels' attempt to oust Gadhafi from 42 years in power.

Human Rights Watch said Gadhafi was using internationally banned cluster bombs and other lethal munitions to indiscriminately kill civilians.

Also Saturday, an airstrike hit a parking lot outside Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli, killing three people, government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim had no information about the identities of the dead in the attack on Bab el-Azizia.

A NATO spokesman confirmed airstrikes in central Tripoli Friday night targeting command and control bunkers but said "we have no evidence of civilian casualties."

CNN's Hamdi Alkshali, Reza Sayah, Saad Abedine, Frederik Pleitgen and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.