Libya: Misrata breathes as Gaddafi siege lifted

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Media captionPeople in Misrata left their homes to celebrate the news Col Gaddafi might be indicted for war crimes

A home-made armoured car, with a heavy machine-gun welded to the back, screeches past us on the battle-ravaged streets of Misrata - a brand new "victory" rap anthem blaring from inside and four grinning faces peering out.

"Our revolutionary fighters - we pamper them now," says our local translator Abdullah Ali, with a mixture of pride and indulgent disapproval.

We've just enjoyed a helping of barbecued camel liver, served in the rubble of a bright yellow villa close to the wider devastation of Tripoli Street, where a group of local fighters have set up camp.

"The people bring them food every day," says Mr Ali. "We know we owe them so much."

It has taken us 34 hours to reach the besieged port of Misrata by sea, from the eastern city of Benghazi. We hitched a ride on a small, rusting fishing boat - packed with supplies and rebel fighters - which wallowed extravagantly in a gentle Mediterranean swell.

Misrata's large, commercial harbour has been mined and shelled by Col Gaddafi's forces in recent weeks, but our arrival, monitored by three Nato warships off the coast, went smoothly.

The captain, who had learnt his trade at a naval academy in Soviet Azerbaijan, led a big onboard cheer of relief.

Bridal salon

It is three days now since the last bombardments struck the city. People here are enjoying their first nights of uninterrupted sleep in many weeks.

The city's rag-tag defenders, helped decisively by Nato airstrikes, have pushed Col Gaddafi's forces back out of rocket and artillery range on at least three fronts.

As we drive through the city - a complicated task given the maze of roadblocks and barriers - we can see dozens of queues forming, some outside bread shops, others by the side of the road, where lorries have brought eggs in from farms in newly seized territory to the west.

The siege of the city may have been lifted, but most supplies can only reach here by sea, and stocks of most goods remain worryingly low.

The local mobile phone system is down too. For many people that is just a minor additional inconvenience, but for the rebels - still dysfunctional at the best of times - it is clearly a big headache as they struggle to co-ordinate their disparate forces on multiple fronts.

With so many civilians crowding into the city from neighbouring towns, accommodation is scarce.

Image caption Farouk Ben Attmeade says rebels are waiting for orders to advance

We spend our first night in the slightly surreal surroundings of a private clinic-cum-spa, a few doors down from one of the main hospitals. I get some sleep on a doctor's examination bed between rooms marked "bridal salon" and "tight chests."

The next morning I meet a five-year-old girl, who appears to be one of the last victims of Col Gaddafi's long and furious bombardment of Misrata - an offensive that may well feature in any future attempt to prosecute him for alleged war crimes.

Malak lost her right leg on Friday afternoon, when a Grad missile smashed through the wall of her home in a residential neighbourhood.

Later, her father, Mustapha Ashami, shows me the children's bedroom. Although Malak survived the explosion, her one-year old sister, Rudeyna, was killed on the spot, as was her three-year-old brother, Mohammed.

"I want to see Gaddafi killed - wiped off the face of the earth," he says.

But then he changes his mind. "He must be brought to justice and pay the penalty for his crimes."

Gaddafi doormat

On Tripoli Street - where the scars of war are at their most livid - residents have assembled a collection of munitions, some intact, others in pieces, and arranged them outside a bullet-riddled shop front into a makeshift display.

It is part memorial, part museum, part souvenir stall. Crowds gather each day to take photos and to wipe their feet on a large doormat bearing Col Gaddafi's image.

Nearby, Farouk Ben Attmeade swaggers past the crowds with a bandolier of bullets wrapped snugly round his chest. Like a surprising number of people here, he spent many years in Britain.

Two friends accompany him - one is a 19-year-old English student who took food to the frontlines during the heaviest fighting. The other is a 37-year-old postman-turned-sniper.

"We have defeated Gaddafi - his forces are scared of us now. There are none left. We are just waiting for orders from our government in Benghazi and we can advance," says Mr Attmeade.

But he acknowledges that will be hard without Nato's help, and refers obliquely to the tribal divisions that make it "complicated" to start moving onto other cities without "proper instructions."

From Misrata, rebel forces are pushing slowly towards the west and the south-east.

But for now it remains unclear whether they are simply strengthening their grip on areas around their home city, or laying the foundations for a bigger and more decisive offensive into the heart of western Libya.