Libyan rebels seize Tunisian border post

 

REBEL FORCES fighting government troops in the far west of Libya seized control of the border crossing with Tunisia yesterday in an insurgency that has been largely dominated by the siege of Misurata and battles in the east.

At least 13 Libyan army officers, including two commanders, fled across the border into Tunisia, according to the official Tunisian news agency, TAP. “Rebels are now manning Dehiba crossing,” rebel commander Shaban Abu Sitta told the Associated Press. He claimed his fighters had destroyed 30 army pick-up trucks.

The Tunisian defence ministry said four rockets had hit territory a few hundred metres on its side of the border earlier this week. No one was injured.

The Dehiba border crossing is close to the mountainous western area of Libya, where there has been sustained fighting for the past two months centred on the city of Nalut. “The whole region has been under siege for two months now,” Firas Kayal of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees agency told the Guardian.

Around 14,000 people have fled the area in the past fortnight, the UNHCR said. “They are fleeing because of shelling and intensified fighting between government and opposition forces,” said Mr Kayal.

Six thousand people, including many women and children, fled the sparsely populated area in two days last weekend when bombardment of the area stepped up.

The Libyan government said there were pockets of resistance in the region, but most of the area was under its control.

Heavy fighting has raged around the towns of Nalut, Yifran, Qalaa and Zintan in the past few days, according to rebel reports. Grad rockets, tank shells and anti-aircraft guns have been fired on Yifran, home to about 25,000 people, and medics were forced to abandon the hospital there.

A rebel spokesman called Abdelrahman told Reuters there had been no Nato air strikes in the area of Zintan since last Friday. The region is dominated by Berbers, a minority group in Libya who have suffered repression at the hands of the Gadafy regime for years.

When uprisings began across Libya in mid-February, locals joined in, raising rebel flags.

Forces loyal to Col Gadafy moved swiftly to crush uprisings in towns and cities in the western, largely loyalist side of the country, but the western mountain region has continued to hold out.

Refugees were reporting shortages in the area, said Mr Kayal, but most were driven to leave by fear: “They say they are afraid of government shelling, and have heard stories about killing and rapes.”

* The United States is starting to use armed Predator drones in Libya to target Col Gadafy’s forces after President Barack Obama approved their use, defence secretary Robert Gates said yesterday.

The unmanned aircraft, already used to target militants along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, will allow for more precise attacks against Col Gadafy’s forces, Mr Gates said.

– ( Guardianservice)