After two months of heavy siege, pro-Qaddafi forces suddenly withdrew from the city of Misrata on Saturday, leaving the rebel leaders perplexed as to whether this was a victory, or part of an elaborate trap.
Misrata is the only major rebel stronghold in Western Libya, and has been the site of a heavy barrage on rebel forces. Saturday was one of the bloodiest days in weeks: at least 24 people were killed and 75 were wounded, a doctor at a Misrata hospital told the AP.
Things seemed to turn around on Saturday. Qaddafi's forces abandoned all but two buildings in Misrata, according to the New York Times. But although crowds poured into Victory Square in Misrata, and there was finally a sense of liberation in the embattled city, rebel leaders were deeply hesitant to consider this a victory.
“It’s a trick,” said Col. Ahmed Bani, chief spokesman for the rebel forces in Benghazi. “He’s playing deadly games. He can’t give up Misrata this easily. He knows that if Misrata falls in our hands, it opens the way for Tripoli to fall in our hands.”
Although captured government soldiers told rebel forces that they had been instructed to withdraw, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khalid Kaim, said that the military had not withdrawn from Misrata, but ceased operations in order to give tribal leaders a chance to negotiate a resolution to the siege.
“Qaddafi is trying to project the view they are leaving it to the tribes, which is a great concern to us,” said Jalil el-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebels’ Transitional National Council. “It is a familiar tactic that he has used for a long time, but I think people understand now that he wants to start a tribal war.”
Rebel leaders fear that if the government incites the tribal leaders to fight the rebels on its behalf, the attackers would evade NATO by blending in with civilians. Though the long siege at Misrata is broken at least for the moment, it may be merely the calm before the storm.