By C.J. CHIVERS
MISURATA, Libya — Rebels in the contested western city of Misurata appeared close to seizing control of the airport from forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Wednesday, advancing on the sprawling facility in scores of trucks and battling pockets of Qaddafi soldiers holed up in terminal buildings.
Taking control of the airport in Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, which has been under siege for nearly two months by Qaddafi forces, would be one of the most significant rebel victories in the Libyan conflict.
A journalist accompanying rebels who were breaking through the fence on the airport’s southern perimeter saw abandoned Libyan Army tanks and a deserted bazaar formerly occupied by Qaddafi troops. It appeared that many of the soldiers had simply fled.
Rebel commanders in the eastern city of Benghazi were quoted by Western news agencies as saying the Misurata airport had been captured, but it was clear from the sound of gunfire at the airport that pockets of loyalist resistance remained.
The rebel advance on the airport, which lies a few miles southwest of the city, came after days of NATO airstrikes against positions and military equipment held by Qaddafi forces in and around Misurata, which rebel commanders said had weakened loyalists to a point where a ground attack was possible.
The rebels in Misurata first broke through Qaddafi lines west of the city on Sunday, snapping a stalemate that had left Misurata’s roughly 500,000 residents isolated and increasingly in need of food, fuel and medical aid.
NATO warplanes, which have been bombing Qaddafi military targets under a United Nations Security Council mandate to protect civilians, have intensified their strikes this week, hitting positions in the capital, Tripoli, and other cities.
The rebels have been fighting Colonel Qaddafi’s military since February when he sought to crush an antigovernment uprising, inspired by the revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, that threatened his 41-year-old rule.