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U.S. drone destroys Libya rocket launcher; battles rage in Misrata

Heavy fighting raged anew in Misrata and killed 24 people Saturday as Moammar Gadhafi's forces gave up more ground inside Libya's third-largest city. The U.S. said its first Predator drone attack in the country destroyed a government rocket launcher that had menaced civilians in the western city.

Hundreds of people have been killed in rebel-held Misrata in a two-month government siege backed by tanks, mortars and snipers. On Friday night, the regime said it was withdrawing its military forces and allowing armed tribesmen to take over the battle. But the opposition was skeptical about the claim, saying it doubted Gadhafi's troops would fully depart.

"Gadhafi forces are moving back," said Safi Eddin al-Montaser, a rebel spokesman in Misrata. But he added: "People are still nervous because we don't know the next step of Gadhafi's forces."

Misrata, the only major rebel stronghold in western Libya, has become the most dramatic battleground in the Libyan uprising, which began in February after similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted longtime leaders. Fighting elsewhere in the country is at a stalemate, even with NATO airstrikes that began last month.

Residents reported heavy fighting, shelling and explosions in the east and south of Misrata and doctors said the day was one of the bloodiest in weeks. At least 24 people were killed and 75 were wounded, many of them critically, said a doctor at a Misrata hospital who asked not to be identified because he was afraid of government retribution.

In some vacated buildings, rebels found that the Gadhafi forces had left behind booby-trapped bodies that were wired to explode if they were moved, al-Montaser said.

Friday night, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said government troops would pull back from the city, saying armed tribesmen would take up the fight if rebel forces don't surrender.

However, Misrata is not known to have very large or dominant tribes, and rebels in Misrata questioned how much support Gadhafi had among them.

NATO said a U.S. Predator drone destroyed a multiple rocket launcher Saturday in the Misrata area that was being used against civilians. The Pentagon said it was the first attack carried out in Libya by one of the drones, which began flying missions in the country on Thursday.

In eastern Libya, which is largely controlled by the rebels, other NATO strikes smashed more than two dozen sedans and pickup trucks belonging to government forces about halfway between Ajdabiya and the strategic oil town of Brega, said rebel battalion commander Col. Hamid Hassy.

President Obama approved the use of armed Predator drones to improve the precision of strikes on Libyan government forces.

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