ABOARD THE RED STAR 1 – Libyan government forces Tuesday bombarded the port of Misrata, in a virtually nonstop assault on the sole lifeline of a battered population that has been under siege for the past two months.

While forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi pulled out of the city over the weekend under pressure from NATO airstrikes, they have since unleashed a withering rocket and mortar barrage on Misrata that has killed dozens.

The bombardment Tuesday was constant throughout the afternoon and into the evening, and explosions could be heard across the city.

“It was horrific, like a scene from World War II,” said Saddoun el-Misurati who was waiting to evacuate his mother from the port when the rockets began to fall. “I stopped counting after nine.”

Hundreds of residents, including migrant African laborers, had been waiting at the port for the expected afternoon arrival of the Red Star 1, an Albanian ship chartered by the International Organization of Migration to evacuate people.

The crowd gathered on the docks scrambled for cover when the rockets began falling, hiding in cars and shipping crates or just fleeing the parea, said el-Misurati.

Even after sundown, Gadhafi’s forces continued to shell the port.

Abdullah Abodabbous, a 25-year-old from Benghazi, said he was trying to leave on a small, previously arranged vessel when a barrage of at least 10 Grad rockets slammed into the port around 9 p.m., forcing him to hide under a table in offices near the main entrance.

With Gadhafi’s troops besieging the city on all sides by land, the port has become a key point in the battle for Misrata.

It has served as a lifeline for the city, allowing in desperately needed medical supplies and food and ferrying out residents looking to flee the fierce fighting that has left swaths of the city in ruins.

Tuesday’s assault by pro-Gadhafi forces temporarily suspended the flow of aid and people.

An Albanian passenger ferry carrying 10 shipping containers of aid and two ambulances was expected to dock around noon, but instead motored off the coast for hours as Gadhafi’s forces pounded the port. It

“It was too risky to go in, given the darkness and the security situation inside the city in general. Hopefully we will be able to go in tomorrow,” said Othman Belbeisi, an official with the International Organization for Migration, which organized the ship.

Belbeisi said the decision was made after consulting with the port authority.

The battle for Misrata, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past two months, has become the focal point of the armed rebellion against Gadhafi since fighting on the eastern front near the city of Ajdabiya is deadlocked.

Video of Misrata civilians being killed and wounded by Gadhafi’s heavy weapons, including Grad rockets and tank shells, have spurred calls for more forceful international intervention to stop the bloodshed.

The Libyan government has denied that it engages in indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers.