Misrata — Libyan troops captured by rebels in Misrata said on Saturday the army had been ordered to retreat from the western port, marking a possible shift in a two-month revolt against leader Muammar Qadhafi.
The Libyan government said earlier NATO air strikes meant it no longer made sense for the army to fight in Misrata and local tribes would take over the battle in Libya's third largest city.
"We have been told to withdraw. We were told to withdraw yesterday," one army soldier, Khaled Dorman, told Reuters.
Lying in the back of a pickup truck, he was among 12 wounded soldiers brought to a hospital for treatment in Misrata. Blasts and machine gun fire were heard in the distance.
Another serviceman, asked by a Reuters correspondent if the government had lost control over Misrata, said "yes".
The last large city held by rebels in western Libya, Misrata has been under government siege for nearly two months. Hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting.
The government acknowledged late on Friday the siege had been broken when rebels seized the port and air strikes had taken their toll. "The tactic of the Libyan army is to have a surgical solution, but it doesn't work, with the air strikes it doesn't work," Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said.
"The situation in Misrata will be eased, will be dealt with by the tribes around Misrata and the rest of Misrata's people and not by the Libyan army," he told reporters in Tripoli.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata, Abdelsalam, said pro-Qadhafi tribes were in a minority in the area: "There are two small pro-Qadhafi settlements outside Misrata. They make less than one percent of the population of Misrata and the surrounding area."
"Those people know that when Qadhafi's regime falls, they will fall with it," he added, predicting the government would boost their strength by paying mercenaries to pose as tribesmen.
Western countries, which began UN-mandated air strikes last month to protect civilians from Qadhafi's forces, have vowed not to stop bombing Libya until he leaves power.
Their air war has so far failed to tip the balance and the top US military officer said on Friday it was approaching a stalemate.
Hours after the government's announcement of a shift in tactics in Misrata, NATO bombs struck what appeared to be a bunker near his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in central Tripoli.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said three people were killed by the "very powerful explosion" in a car park.
Reuters reporters said the area was surrounded by a wall and guarded by watchtowers and soldiers. They saw two large holes in the ground where the bombs had torn through soil and reinforced concrete, to pierce what appeared to be an underground bunker.
Smoke was rising from one of the craters and ammunition crates lay nearby. Ibrahim said the area was disused and the ammunition boxes were empty.
Dr Mustafa bin Sweid, at Misrata hospital, was skeptical about the government's withdrawal announcement. "We don't believe anything that Qadhafi's people say. Just listen to the sounds of the mortars: they're lying," he said.
Another doctor said Qadhafi's forces were on the defensive: "I don't think they would do this for tactical reasons. They're humiliated," said the doctor, who declined to be named.
On Friday, rebels in Misrata seized control of a downtown office building that had been a base for Qadhafi's snipers and other troops after a furious two-week battle. On Saturday, captured soldiers said rebels had attacked as they retreated.
"The rebels attacked us while we were withdrawing from Misrata near a bridge this morning," said Ayad Muhammad, a young soldier. As he spoke, other uniformed soldiers in the hospital moaned in pain, some saying "My god, my god".
On Friday, US Senator John McCain became the highest-profile Western politician to visit Benghazi, where rebels who control eastern Libya have set up a government.
He expressed impatience with Washington's cautious use of military power and said the United States should deploy ground attack aircraft and recognize the rebel government.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's joint chiefs of staff, told US troops in Baghdad that Western-led air strikes had degraded between 30 and 40 percent of Qadhafi's ground forces. Referring to the conflict, he said: "It's certainly moving toward a stalemate."
McCain said Washington should recognize the rebels' Transitional National Council as the official government of Libya, a step already taken by France.
"They have earned this right and Gaddafi has forfeited it by waging war on his own people," he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked about McCain's appeal, replied: "We think it's for the people of Libya to decide who the head of their country is, not for the United States to do that."
Sources close to French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he planned to visit Benghazi, probably in the first two weeks of May, and that he wanted British Prime Minister David Cameron to accompany him.