TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebels battled Moammar Gadhafi's troops Thursday for control of central Misrata, driving dozens of snipers from tall buildings in hours of urban warfare and gaining a tactical advantage in the only major city held by the opposition in western Libya, witnesses said.
The Libyan government, meanwhile, ramped up its rhetoric against NATO, warning that "it will be hell" for the alliance if it sends in ground troops, even though British Prime Minister David Cameron said Western nations were not moving toward such a deployment.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drones in Libya. The drones allow for low-level precision attacks and are uniquely suited for urban areas such as Misrata, where NATO airpower has been unable to protect civilians when Gadhafi's forces are operating inside the city.
Also Thursday, rebels captured a Libyan border crossing into Tunisia, forcing government soldiers to flee over the frontier and possibly opening a new channel for opposition forces in Gadhafi's bastion in the western part of the country.
At least seven people were killed in Thursday's fighting for the main Misrata thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, bringing to 20 the number slain in three days in Libya's third-largest city.
Misrata has been besieged by government forces for nearly two months, with human rights groups estimating hundreds of people killed. Tripoli Street is the site where Tim Hetherington, the Oscar-nominated co-director of the Afghan war documentary Restrepo, and Chris Hondros, a New York-based photographer for Getty Images, were killed Wednesday.
The rebels took over several buildings along parts of the street, enabling them to cut off supplies to a Gadhafi unit and dozens of rooftop snipers who have terrorized civilians and kept them trapped in their homes, said a doctor who identified himself only as Ayman for fear of retaliation.
Residents celebrated and chanted "God is great" after the snipers left a battle-scarred insurance building that is the highest point in central Misrata, according to a witness who identified himself only as Sohaib.
"Thanks to God, the snipers fled, leaving nothing behind at the insurance building after they were cut off from supplies — ammunition, food and water — for days," added another resident, Abdel Salam.