TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — As NATO jets bombed the Libyan capital Friday, Moammar Gadhafi's forces exchanged intense shelling with rebels who are slowly breaking the government siege on their western stronghold, the port city of Misrata.
Doctors at the Hikma hospital in Misrata said nine rebel fighters and a woman living near the battle were killed and 30 others were wounded. Government casualties were not known.
Barrages of artillery and Grad missiles were landing on rebel lines as they continued trying to advance out of Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers), east of Tripoli. The heaviest shelling rained down between the towns of Dafniya and Zlitan, west of the Mediterranean port. Rebels were holding their own with return fire from their front about 20 miles west of the port.
For weeks rebels had been bottled up in Misrata, one of a handful of toeholds they hold in Western Libya. The eastern third of the country is under rebel control from their de facto capital, Benghazi. As NATO warplanes began stepping up attacks on Libyan government forces, bases and ammunition depots in recent days, the rebels in Misrata used the distraction to start their push out of Misrata toward Tripoli. Fighting has been intense along that front, with the rebels only able to advance about 20 miles (32 kilometers).
NATO attacked the Libyan capital at midday Friday, pounding a target in the south of the city and sending a thick cloud of black smoke rising high into the air.
A series of explosions rumbled across other parts of the city as fighter jets could by heard flying overhead. Fire engines raced through the streets, sirens blaring.
It wasn't clear what was hit or whether there were casualties. Friday is the main day of rest in Libya, with many people off work.
NATO has been ramping up the pressure on Gadhafi's regime. Though most airstrikes happen under cover of darkness, daytime raids have grown more frequent.
Friday's raids follow a barrage that struck multiple targets late Thursday night.
The fresh strikes blasted the capital as renewed diplomatic efforts to halt Libya's civil war appeared to be gaining momentum, though there are no signs a breakthrough is imminent.
On Thursday, Russia's envoy to Libya met with senior government leaders in Tripoli, but not Gadhafi himself, in an effort to stop the fighting.
Last week, the envoy Mikhail Margelov visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi and said that Gadhafi has lost his legitimacy. However, the envoy also said NATO airstrikes are not a solution to Libya's violent stalemate.
Libyan Prime Minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said the Libyan government has held a number of "preliminary meetings" with officials based in the eastern rebel-held city of Benghazi. He said the talks took place abroad, including in Egypt, Tunisia and Norway, but he did not provide specifics.
A coalition including France, Britain and the United States launched the first strikes against Gadhafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It's joined by a number of Arab allies.
Speaking by video link from Naples, NATO Wing Commander Mike Bracken said Gadhafi's future at the helm of Libya was a what he called a "political decision." Bracken was speaking to reporters in Brussels, NATO headquarters.
Later, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said there were no indications Gadhafi would stop attacking the opposition.
"It is hard to imagine the end to attacks on civilians while the pro-Gadhafi regime is still in power," Lungescu said in Brussels. "It is unfortunately still the case that pro-Gadhafi forces continue to show shocking determination to harm the Libyan people."
What started as a peaceful uprising inside Libya against Gadhafi has grown into a civil war, with rebels now holding a third of the country in the east and pockets in the west.
Libya's rebels mark Feb. 17 — four months ago Friday — as the start of their revolution against Gadhafi's more than four-decade rule.It was on that date that protesters emboldened by Arab uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in a number of Libyan cities. At least 20 people were reported killed in a crackdown by state security forces.
Fighting between government forces and the rebels had reached a stalemate until last week when NATO launched the heaviest bombardment of Gadhafi forces since the alliance took control of the skies over Libya.
Al-Shalchi reported from Dafniya, AP writer Don Melvin contributed from Brussels.