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Isolation along with air strikes take toll in Gaddafi's Libya

By Missy Ryan

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The impact of the West's two-pronged effort to oust Muammar Gaddafi was apparent this week in Tripoli, where doctors struggled to treat Libyans injured in recent NATO air strikes amid a deepening shortage of electricity and medical supplies.

Hassan Moussa, senior doctor at Tripoli's Central Hospital, said physicians had been forced to improvise treatment for critically injured patients as supplies of oxygen and other necessities run short six months after the United Nations renewed sanctions on Libya.

"We are physicians but we are unable to save people. Where is the oxygen? Where are the laboratory supplies, the electricity, the refrigeration?" he said. "We ask God to end this nightmare."

Machines hummed in the hospital's critical care unit as doctors tended to patients they said were wounded in NATO airstrikes this week. Officials said one strike killed 85 people, including women and children, at a cluster of hamlets near where rebels are fighting to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

The longtime leader remains defiant despite months of bombing, and there is little evidence that his better-armed military will soon give way to rebels making fitful progress.

Even less clear is whether the West's parallel campaign to isolate Gaddafi economically, including United Nations and bilateral sanctions, will succeed in eroding support for him or will simply fuel anger against the West.

A UN mission reported late last month that medical supplies such as vaccines were rapidly running low. Officials were scrambling to staff medical units after the rebellion that broke out in February prompted thousands of health workers to flee.

"The need to replenish acute shortages of essential medicines and medical supplies is now Libya's main health priority," said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Last month, the Libyan health ministry advertised for obstetricians, orthopedists and other medical specialists.

Medical supplies are exempt from UN sanctions passed in February and March, but widespread confusion about the restrictions has created difficulties for the state, the sole importer of many kinds of medicine.

"So far the health system has managed to prevent disease outbreaks and maintain a high level of immunization," Jasarevic said. "However, these achievements are at risk if medical authorities continue to face acute shortages of staff, supplies and funds."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said sanctions should be eased or they will cause more deaths from diseases including measles, cancer and diabetes.

The ICRC called on governments and organizations to review the way the sanctions are being applied.

"In particular, we are alerting them to the need to ease restrictions on the import of medical supplies," Boris Michel, head of ICRC operations for North and West Africa, said in remarks posted on the ICRC website.

"We fear that, in a few more weeks most medicines and other medical items will be in seriously short supply."

While there is no UN oil embargo on OPEC member Libya, oil production has virtually halted in areas controlled by Gaddafi.

The country's sole known operative refinery is running at a fraction of its capacity. All this has contributed to a severe fuel shortage that makes it hard for Libyans to get to hospitals and for the government to operate electricity turbines.

The blackouts rolling across Tripoli and other areas only compound the problems facing physicians already struggling to cope with an influx of war-related injuries.

In one illustration of the crisis, Tripoli doctor Mohamed Abu Ajeela Rashid was forced to complete a operation by the light of his cell phone during a recent blackout.

(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Giles Elgood)