Libyan fighters stray across Tunisian border

by editor | 29th April 2011 1:29 pm

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Pro-Gaddafi forces chase rebels into border town after overnight battles, prompting intervention by Tunisian forces

Friday’s fresh violence broke out when rebels continued their overnight battle over control of the Dehiba-Wazin crossing. It gives access to the Tunisian town that is crucial for the rebels’ refueling and resupply.
After two hours of intense fire between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces, the Tunisian army and the national guard intervened, Youssef Gaigi, an Al Jazeera reporter on the Tunisian side of the border area said.
While it is unclear exactly what had happened, witnesses say Tunisian troops came to collect Libyan government forces from a crowd of Dehiba residents surrounding them. Gaddafi troops were driven back to Libya under Tunisian forces’ auspices, witnesses said.
The situation is much calmer on the Tunisian side after rebels regained control of the crossing later Friday, but the area remains volatile, Gaigi said.
Tunisian authorities had so-far taken a “very hands-off” approach toward the Libyan clashes, in an effort to be fair to both sides, but now “the battle has actually come to them”, Al Jazeera correspondent Anita McNaught said.
Intense fire exchange took place in central Dehiba on Friday with one boy shot in the foot and a woman killed both by pro-Gaddafi forces’ shelling and gunfire, accordifng to uncorroborated witness accounts.

Tunisian military and police left the border post Thursday evning, drawing anger from Dehiba residents to return and protect the town, she said. On Friday Tunisian authorities captured seven vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces.

The crucial western frontier

Rebels had taken the crossing a week ago, but on Thursday pro-Gaddafi forces attempted to retake it.

The crossing, near the western mountains, has been a main route of escape for Libyan nationals fleeing the conflict since the rebels claimed control on April 21. Previously residents of the western mountains area had been forced to take long and difficult roads around the crossing in order to seek shelter or medical help in Tunisia.

Libya’s eastern borders shared with Egypt have been more difficult to penetrate, with Cairo’s reluctance to accommodate flocking refugees.

Controlling the crossing also gave the rebels better access to aid and supplies to continue their fight against Gaddafi forces in western Libya.

Youssef Bounda, a professor of international affairs at Qatar University says, Libya’s western borders with Tunisian borders is crucial for both the rebels and Gaddafi.

“It is the only exit where they can get support – if not military, at least humanitarian,” said Bounda. “The fact that Gaddafi wants to secure the [Wazin crossing] area, means he is in a very difficult situation.”

In other military skirmishes across the country, at least 12 people were killed in Misurata on Friday when pro-Gaddafi forces shelled their homes amid rage against rebels for control of the city’s airport, a local doctor told Reuters. The casualties included two women.

Libyan rebels have fought for the airport, after pushing back government forces from the embattled city’s sea port as the oil-rich country’s tribes urged Gaddafi to relinquish power.

NATO air strikes hit pro-Gaddafi forces attacking the rebel-held town of Zintan, Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman told Reuters.

“Five missiles landed in the area,” the spokesman, called Abdulrahman, said by telephone from the town. “Gaddafi’s forces did not bombard Zintan today after the air strikes,” he said.

Government forces closed in on rebel outposts on Thursday, showering the western mountain city of Zintan with missiles and attacking rebels holed up near the border, according to rebel sources.

Gaddafi denies his forces are attacking civilians and describes his opponents as Islamist extremists and foreign-backed agitators who deliberately put non-combatants in harm’s way.

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