TRIPOLI, Libya >> Pressing to break a two-month siege, rebels in the port city of Misrata said Wednesday they had captured the local airport and pushed Moammar Gadhafi’s forces ever further from the city’s western outskirts.
The reported advances were the latest in a recent flurry of accounts of rebel victories, coinciding with intensified NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi’s forces in several areas of Libya. In all, NATO said Wednesday, the alliance has carried out more than 2,400 airstrikes since March 31 as part of the effort to assist the rebels and pressure Gadhafi to end his 42-year authoritarian rule.
Late Wednesday, Gadhafi made his first TV appearance since a NATO airstrike on his residential compound killed one of his sons on April 30. Libyan TV showed him meeting tribal leaders, but did not record him speaking. To authenticate the scene, the camera zoomed in on the date on a TV monitor in the room, and it read Wednesday, May 11. It was apparently recorded at the hotel where foreign correspondents say, but he did not make himself available to them.
Because Gadhafi had not made an appearance, rumors began circulating that he had been hit in the April 30 airstrike. The brief TV appearance seemed designed to squelch the rumors.
The last time Gadhafi was seen in public was April 9, when he visited a school in Tripoli.
According to the Libyan state news agency, JANA, one of latest sites hit by NATO was the North Korean Embassy in the capital, Tripoli. JANA said the mission was badly damaged by fragments of a NATO missile fired Monday.
Even though some of the recent reports of ground combat are difficult to confirm, they seem to represent a major boost for the rebels’ military prospects after weeks of stalemate on several fronts.
According to a rebel who identified himself as Abdel Salam, rebels were in total control of the airport in Misrata’s southern outskirts after two days of fighting. He said five rebels were killed and 105 injured.
He said rebels are also pushing west from Misrata, toward the nearby city of Zlitan, hoping to then advance farther toward Tripoli.
"This is a major victory," Abdel Salam said. "The Gadhafi forces have been suffering lack of supplies … Their morale was very low after being defeated several times and pushed back."
The rebels control most of eastern Libya, but Misrata — about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli — is the only rebel stronghold in the west. Local doctors say more than 1,000 of its residents have been killed in the fighting and shelling during the siege by Gadhafi’s forces.
In Tripoli, a government spokesman denied the Misrata rebels’ claims of success.
"This is nonsense," said Moussa Ibrahim. "We control the airport and we also control the sea port."
Access to the port has been limited but not halted. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a chartered ship floating in the harbor which delivered medical supplies and baby food on Tuesday and is now being used to support ICRC work in the city.
Ibrahim did acknowledge that the war was creating severe shortages of many commodities in Tripoli.
"The NATO airstrikes and the sea embargo … are badly influencing the lives of daily Libyans," he said. "We have some shortages in fuel, food and medicine. It makes it difficult to go to schools, hospitals and factories."
There was evidence of Tripoli’s economic plight at its colorful Abu Salim market — the largest in the capital. While residents strolled through the displays of bejeweled robes and glittery shoes, traders said the number of customers had fallen drastically since the conflict began in mid-February.
"In normal times, you wouldn’t have space to move," said a trader who requested anonymity, fearing disapproval from Libyan authorities.
The trader said fuel shortages, a slowdown of goods arriving by sea, and the dwindling value of the Libyan dinar had pushed up prices for many goods — more than doubling in some cases.
He said most of the customers in the bazaar were young women and their mothers, looking to buy new clothes — a tradition of brides before they marry. "They have no choice — they have to do it," he said.
In Benghazi, the rebels’ headquarters city in eastern Libya, the opposition National Transitional Council received its highest-ranking foreign visitor Wednesday — Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.
He said the people of Poland and the European Union "wish victory to the Libyan people in making this transition to democracy."
Sikorski recalled that Poles rid themselves of communist rule two decades ago.
"If we could have done it … so can you," he said.
Sikorski refused to answer to questions about whether Poland will be sending arms to the rebels, who say they are outgunned by Gadhafi’s forces and can’t overthrow him without heavier weapons.
"In diplomacy, you don’t talk publicly about everything you discuss," he told a news conference.
In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for "an immediate, verifiable cease-fire" in Libya, and said Gadhafi’s government had agreed to another visit by a special envoy.
Ban said he spoke with Libya’s prime minister by phone late Tuesday to urge a cease-fire and demand unimpeded access for U.N. humanitarian workers in Libya. He also called on Gadhafi’s forces to stop attacking civilians.
Ban said the prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, agreed to receive a special U.N. envoy who would now travel to Tripoli to undertake "negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and unimpeded access for humanitarian workers."