2:38pm

Sun April 17, 2011
Africa

Boats Are Lifeline In Besieged Libyan Port City

Rebel fighters in Libya say forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi unleashed a fierce rocket attack on the besieged western city of Misrata on Sunday. The rebels have stubbornly held out against a sustained military attack as thousands of people wait for rescue ships to come from Misrata's only lifeline — the sea.

A car ferry, the Ionian Spirit, leased by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, has been pressed into emergency service, plying the Gulf of Sirte to save thousands of civilians from their life-threatening situation.

Jeremy Haslam, the organization's senior emergency worker on the ship, was called in from his post in Uganda to help out. He says the approach to Misrata Harbor is not inviting these days.

"We observed rounds striking the city around 3 in the afternoon," he says. "After we berthed, there was — at some distance — there was artillery fire, progressively moving towards us, but I could hear the crump getting louder and louder."

Gadhafi has been condemned for deliberately attacking a humanitarian rescue effort. Other boats, usually small fishing boats, are smuggling weapons to the penned-in rebels of Misrata.

Haslam says once his team reached the shore, they took a quick tour of the city to assess the situation and to decide who to take out first. It wasn't easy.

"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," he says. "The most needy are the West Africans, by far — they are in really awful conditions. If they are not assisted in fairly short order, then they'll start dropping, they'll start dying."

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.

In the end, the Ionian Spirit managed to board nearly 1,200 foreign workers. Left behind were several thousand more, clustered in makeshift camps, as well as Libyans desperate for a safe haven. Haslam says the International Organization for Migration needs money to continue these runs, and making several trips with fewer vessels is hardly ideal.

"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 something horrendous happens," Haslam says. "If they were to get a direct hit on that large encampment, it would be catastrophic."

Time is not on their side for another reason: Leased vessels like 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 on Saturday.

For now, the rescue continues. The crew of the Ionian Spirit reloaded and left for another trip to Misrata on Saturday, uncertain what they would find when the reached the shore. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.