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In Libya, rebel fighters say forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi unleashed a fierce rocket attack on the besieged western city of Misrata today. The rebels have stubbornly held out against a sustained military attack. Meanwhile, thousands of people in desperate condition are waiting for rescue ships to come from Misrata's only lifeline: the sea.
From Benghazi, NPR's Peter Kenyon has the story of one ship's journey to Misrata and back.
PETER KENYON: A truck driver eases his semi along the off-ramp of the Greek car ferry Ionian Spirit, which has been pressed into emergency service, plying the Gulf of Sirte to save thousands of civilians from their life-threatening situation.
The ship has been leased by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. IOM's senior emergency worker on the ship is Jeremy Haslam, called in from his post in Uganda to help out. He says the approach to Misrata Harbor is not inviting these days.
Mr. JEREMY HASLAM (International Organization for Migration): We observed rounds striking the city around 3 p.m. After we berthed, there was - at some distance - there was artillery fire, progressively moving towards us, but, you know, you hear the crump getting louder and louder.
KENYON: Gadhafi has been condemned for deliberately attacking a humanitarian rescue effort. Other boats, however, usually small fishing boats, are smuggling weapons to the penned-in rebels of Misrata.
Haslam says once his team reached shore, they took a quick tour of the city to assess the situation and decide who to take out first. It wasn't easy.
Mr. HASLAM: The most vulnerable we could not bring out on the first rotation. There's simply too many of them, and we would probably be overrun.
KENYON: When you talk about the most vulnerable, who are they? Are they also workers waiting to get out, or are they locals?
Mr. HASLAM: Yeah. Yeah. The most needy are the West Africans, by far. They are in really awful conditions. And if they're not assisted in fairly short order, then they'll start dropping, they'll start dying.
KENYON: Haslam explains that the foreign workers are given priority because in times of crisis, the local families naturally tend to take care of their own first, leaving outsiders to fend for themselves.
On this trip, the Ionian Spirit managed to board nearly 1,200 foreign workers, leaving several thousand clustered in makeshift camps, as well as Libyans desperate for a safe haven.
Haslam says the IOM needs money to continue these runs, and making several trips with fewer vessels is hardly ideal.
Mr. HASLAM: They should be evacuated, and they should be evacuated fast because the artillery is not once a week. It's daily, and it's only a matter of time before there's - something horrendous happens. If they were to get a direct hit on that large encampment, it would be catastrophic.
KENYON: Time is not on their side for another reason: The leased vessels such as the Ionian Spirit are due back to their European runs soon to handle Easter holiday traffic.
Qatar, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others are also trying to rescue people from Misrata. Doctors Without Borders said that its boat carried nearly 100 people, most of them wounded, to safety in Tunisia.
But for now, the rescue continues. The Ionian Spirit reloaded and put to sea again, uncertain what it would find in Misrata this time.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Benghazi.
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