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More than 100 refugees from Misrata arrive in Benghazi

From Amir Ahmed, CNN
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Regime, opposition battle for Misrata
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: NATO ships thwart an attack on the port of Misrata
  • Opposition leader Mahmoud Gibril seeks U.S. recognition
  • Gibril said he wants some frozen Libyan assets released for opposition use
  • A rebel spokesman disputes the claim that Misrata is "liberated"

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) -- A ship arrived Thursday night in Benghazi from Misrata carrying at least 108 refugees, including 25 with war wounds, according to a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In Benghazi, spokeswoman Dibeh Fakher said ambulances ferried the wounded from the main port to city hospitals.

The status of Misrata was in question Thursday, with representatives of the opposition Transitional National Council and rebels in the city giving different accounts of who controlled the strategic town.

Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the council, said in Benghazi on Thursday that all of Misrata had been "liberated."

However, two spokesmen for the Libyan rebels disputed that statement, saying forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were still in control of Misrata's eastern gate, as well as the gate leading to the nearby town of Zlaitin, where clashes occurred Thursday but no casualties resulted.

One spokesman, who asked to be identified only as Mohamed, said rebels were controlling Misrata's airport and civil defense base, which are about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the city center.

Violence continued Thursday in other areas of the country. At least three people were killed Thursday when four rockets struck Gadhafi's compound in the capital city of Tripoli, a government spokesman said.

The Libyan government took journalists near the site of the blast, from where smoke could be seen still rising from the compound.

One rocket hit an administrative building that had been knocked out of operation after NATO struck it last month, government officials said. The same building was also hit in 1986 U.S. airstrikes. Two other rocket strikes blasted two craters in the ground.

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Government officials said 27 people affected by the rocket strike were taken to a hospital; most seemed to be suffering from smoke inhalation.

The Libyan government said an April 30 attack on the same compound killed Gadhafi's son Saif al-Arab Gadhafi and three of the leader's grandchildren.

Libyan state television reported Thursday that the North Korean Embassy in Tripoli was damaged in a NATO airstrike. A NATO official denied that the embassy was targeted.

"I've seen and am aware of media reports that there was damage to the North Korean Embassy, but we have no knowledge of possible collateral damage," the official said. "We're striking with precision and, while the possibility of collateral damage will always exist, we're going to great lengths to reduce such possibilities." The embassy is located some 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the site that was struck, the official said.

NATO warplanes and missiles have been pounding Gadhafi's forces since March, as Gadhafi's troops try to quash a nearly 3-month-old revolt against his almost 42 years of rule.

The NATO mission aims to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for the protection of civilians.

U.S. President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will meet at the White House on Friday to discuss the alliance's role.

Rasmussen said Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington that, even in a post-Gadhafi era, NATO may still have a role to play.

"One of the areas where NATO has particular expertise is reform of the military and security sectors," he said. "And it goes without saying that it is an essential part of transition to democracy that the military and security sectors come under democratic control. To that end, we need reforms, and this is an area in which NATO could assist."

Also scheduled to meet Friday with senior White House officials in Washington is Mahmoud Gibril, president of the Transitional National Council's executive bureau.

Gibril told CNN's "Situation Room" that he will meet with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and that he will ask that the United States join several other countries in recognizing the council "as the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people vis-a-vis the world."

He also said he wants some $34 billion in Libyan assets frozen by the United States to be unfrozen for use by the opposition and is open to the possibility of it being used to refund U.S. taxpayers for helping remove Gadhafi as ruler.

"We did not rule anything out, but our immediate concern now is (to) meet the immediate humanitarian needs of our people," he said Thursday.

Gibril said he was less concerned about the fate of Gadhafi than about the future of Libya and was open to suggestions about how to improve the situation.

"Everything that can save Libyan blood and Libyan people from this genocide and this manslaughter can be negotiated and discussed," he said.

Gibril met Thursday with Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and other U.S. officials. "I think everybody came away impressed by the seriousness of purpose, the articulate presentation of an agenda and the commitment to democracy and to values and principles that I think our country could willingly and happily support," Kerry said.

Also Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council, Cameron's office said in a statement. The prime minister invited the council to open an office in London and said the British would boost their presence in Benghazi.

"These steps continue our very clear intention to work with the council to ensure Libya has a safe and stable future, free from the tyranny of the Gadhafi regime," Cameron said in the statement.

"It is impossible to imagine a real future for Libya with Gadhafi in power," he said. "The council represents the future of Libya as much as Gadhafi represents its past."

As for Misrata, Shamsiddin Abdulmolah of the Transitional National Council said the airport in the southern part of the city had fallen to "revolutionaries" after opposition fighters in nearby Zlaitin joined their counterparts there.

But government spokesman Ibrahim said government forces were in control of the airport and the seaport in Misrata. He said rebel forces had been there "for (a) short time and left."

Off the coast of Libya beginning at about 2 a.m. Thursday, two NATO warships halted an attack on the port by a number of fast small boats, the organization said. "The boats were forced to abandon their attack and regime forces ashore covered their retreat with artillery and anti-aircraft canon fire directed toward the allied warships," NATO said in a news release.

Neither warship was damaged and no one aboard the ships was hurt.

The capture of the airport would be key for rebels fighting the Gadhafi forces, since it would provide an important entry point for humanitarian aid.

Two months of fighting and the ongoing shelling of the Misrata port have prevented most aid ships from docking there, leaving the city "at the forefront" of humanitarian concerns, a top U.N. official told the Security Council this week.

But that was not the only place raising international concerns. The executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Programme said Thursday that fighting was blocking access to Libya's Western Mountains, where "food needs could be immense."

"I am increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation and access to food for people trapped by the violence in this area," Josette Sheeran said in a statement that appealed to all parties for safe access and an immediate cease-fire so that the humanitarian situation can be assessed and food delivered.

Supplies from Tunisia have not been able to reach the areas most affected by fighting around Yefrin and Zintan in the Western Mountains "due to insecurity in many of the areas" in addition to fuel shortages, she said.

Almost 750,000 people have fled the country amid the fighting, and 58,000 more are displaced within Libya, said Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

At least 5,000 more are stranded at border crossings between Libya, Tunisia and Niger, Amos said.

CNN's Nima Elbagir, Barbara Starr, Jill Dougherty and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

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