BENGHAZI, Libya — Forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi began withdrawing from the besieged western city of Misrata on Saturday, Gadhafi officials said, the first shift away from what has been an escalating urban war for control of Libya's third-largest city.
A Gadhafi official announced that local tribes asked to resolve the two-month war instead of relying on the regime, either through negotiation or with their own fighters.
Yet rather than celebrate what a rebel spokesman in Misrata called a victory for the rebels, leaders and analysts alike asked what Gadhafi's motives were behind the decision to withdraw. Moreover, several news agencies in Misrata reported that shelling and fighting continued Saturday after the announced withdrawal.
Some analysts suspected that Gadhafi regime officials decided to hand over the war to the tribes to play them against each other and divide the rebels; still others said that news that U.S. military would began using drone strikes against Gahafi forces pressured Gadhafi's army to consider retreat; still others suspected that Gadhafi's forces were trying to lull rebel fighters into a false sense of victory to ambush them later.
The most optimistic view was that Gadhafi's call for regional tribes to sort out the conflict was an effort to mask his defeat in Misrata. They said that Gadhafi wants to send his finite resources to other troubled areas, such as the Wazan border crossing between Libya and Tunis, which the rebels claimed Friday.
While fighters in Misrata at one point celebrated the news in streets that have been battlefields, here in the rebel capital, where rebels once would shoot in the air over rumored victories, people were noticeably silent.
"We are cautiously optimistic," said Jalil el-Gallal, a spokesman for the Transitional National Council, which governs the liberated east.
U.S. officials here declined to comment on Saturday's developments. A spokesman for NATO, which is leading the operation here to support the rebels and uphold the no-fly zone, called the situation fluid.
Whether a victory in Misrata will give the rebels any major strategic gain appeared dubious. El-Gallal said he believed that gaining Misrata would allow the rebels to move toward Tripoli, Gadafi's capital. But Misrata is sandwiched between areas that still support Gadhafi.
At the same time, el-Gallal conceded that the rebels' holds on towns in the east and Misrata were fragile at best.
"At this point, the most important thing is to protect our gains," he said.
The apparent turn in favor of the rebels appeared to begin Friday. Control for Tripoli Street, the main thoroughfare in Misrata, appeared to move toward the rebel side Friday night as NATO forces launched air attacks on Gadhafi tanks, ammunition bunkers and command centers. By nightfall Friday, Gadhafi's deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Kaim, summoned reporters in Tripoli and announced that Gadhafi forces would retreat.
Kaim said the tribes asked for the army to leave, and the government acquiesced.
"You will see how they will be swift and quick and fast, and the Libyan army will be out of this situation in Misrata, because the Libyan people around Misrata cannot sustain it like this," Kaim told reporters in Tripoli.
By midday Saturday, the U.S. military carried out its first drone attack on Gadhafi forces in Misrata, destroying Libyan Army multiple-rocket launchers, according to a NATO statement.
Jon Alterman, of the Washington-D.C. based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that figuring out how important Misrata is to the rebel effort is difficult because the city appeared to be more important to the rebels' morale than to their goal of overthrowing the regime. Even if the rebels win Misrata, that doesn't help them move toward Tripoli; rather they would control an isolated community.
Meanwhile in eastern Libya, rebels have not gained any ground lost on the road toward Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and his major stronghold, in nearly a month.
The fight for control of Misrata and eastern Libya "is somewhere between a civil war and a war without fronts," Alterman said. "How can you tell if they are making progress without clear lines?"
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.