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Misrata: Front and center in the Libyan war zone

By Reza Sayah and Saad Abedine, CNN
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Bittersweet victory for Misrata rebels
  • Sayah describes shelling by Gadhafi forces in Misrata
  • Shelling comes days after regime official says operations had been suspended
  • Shelling suggests regime is unwilling to give up key city
  • Rebels say some rockets landed near refugee camps for migrant workers

Editor's note: CNN traveled to the city of Misrata, the brutal front line in the fight for control of Libya, to see the results of the battle between Gadhafi loyalists and rebels firsthand.

Misrata, Libya (CNN) -- We left Misrata with a human cargo of refugees and casualties on a ferry evacuating just a few hundred of the many thousands who would escape this port city if they could. We were heading for Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' stronghold.

Among those on board: hundreds of migrant workers and 30 medical cases with 50 relatives. We spoke to one migrant who left the city with just the clothes he was wearing.

Like the majority of the 935 migrants on board, he was from Niger, one of Libya's southern neighbors. He said he had spent three years working in Libya and was hopeful the future would be better.

We left behind us a city that is front and center in the battle for Libya -- what the former shopkeepers of Misrata are calling a revolution for dignity.

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Are kids being trained to defend Gadhafi?
Libyan city looks like a wasteland
Map: Conflict in Libya

It was a different atmosphere from that encountered during the apprehensive journey into Misrata after some 16-20 hours by sea from Benghazi, depending on the conditions.

We were an hour away from Misrata when the shelling started and the city was again under fire.

Our captain decided it was too dangerous to head into port, and there was no choice but to wait it out. The wait would be almost 24 hours.

On board were humanitarian aid -- food and medical supplies - and aid workers eager to get into the city.

As we waited, we could hear and see shelling and smoke rising.

When we were finally able to land at Misrata port Wednesday morning, we saw one small office building destroyed after an alleged hit by regime forces. There was smoke rising from at least one other port location at but the location was not accessible and we couldn't see what was hit.

The office was hit by shells from Gadhafi's forces on Tuesday night -- several days after a regime official said its troops had withdrawn from Misrata and suspended operations.

Clearly, based on what we saw from the boat and during a trip into the city, that was not the case.

The shelling seems to be an indication, a message from the regime that they are unwilling to give up this key city.

There were many fighters on the streets but also some civilians. One father was driving his kids around showing them the destruction.

His daughter, about five-years-old, was chanting "Free Libya." He said he'd told her Gadhafi was responsible for destroying their city.

Most of the people we talked to had been shopkeepers or business owners a few weeks ago. They told us this was not a revolution for bread by the poor but for dignity, that they were sick of the Gadhafi regime.

U.S. Ambassador to U.K. talks Libya
Libyan forces attack Misrata
UK official: Gadhafi regime will fall
Building frequented by Gadhafi hit
  • Tripoli
  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • Libya
  • Misrata
  • NATO

Rebels described the overnight strikes as the most aggressive attack on the port area -- the city's only lifeline to the outside world -- since this uprising began.

Rebel officials said some of the rockets landed near refugee camps for migrant workers trapped in Misrata, and at least three people were killed and several others were injured.

They also said the incoming rocket fire and shelling would have resumed if it weren't for NATO forces intervening.

Several hours after the shelling of the port, NATO warplanes attacked Gadhafi's ground forces outside Misrata.

We heard and felt the vibrations of those air attacks.

Misrata has been the most brutal theater in the war in Libya, and the frontline in the battle has been Tripoli Street.

Some of the tallest buildings in Misrata are along Tripoli Street, and whoever controls those tall buildings owns the highest point in the city -- that's an advantage in any battlefield and that's why both sides were desperately fighting for it.

Several days ago the rebels finally seized control of the last of those buildings from pro-Gadhafi gunmen.

Tripoli Street is the major thoroughfare through the heart of town, and it used to be bustling with activity before the war, but the fighting has laid waste to much of it.

We couldn't find a single building that wasn't damaged or destroyed.

Inside one building -- until recently used by Gadhafi snipers to fire on the street below -- we saw empty shells on the floor and bullet holes in the walls.

In one apartment people had left everything behind when it had been taken over by Gadhafi forces.

The rebels may have won an important victory in capturing the main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, but all indications are that there is more fighting to come here in Misrata.

Bryony Jones contributed to this report

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