In Libya’s West, Battles Rage Along the Tunisian Border

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The battle for Libya spilled across the border on Friday as forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clashed with Tunisian troops after chasing rebel fighters through the mountainous border areas. They also fired shells into the Tunisian town of Dahiba, wounding one resident.  The fighting erupted nearly a week after the rebel forces had managed to wrest an important border post from government control. It was a notable success in a war that is drawing perilously close to a stalemate, providing a burst of energy to the rebels and relief to a community that had been under siege for weeks. By Thursday morning Gaddafi’s forces had recaptured the post in a depressing setback, but according to rebel spokesmen it changed hands once again on Friday, and tentatively remains in rebel control even as the fighting continues.  

The border post between Wazin and Dahiba is one of two official crossings between Libya and Tunisia and controls the only road linking the restive mountain region with the outside world. Home to Libya’s Berber population, the Nafusa Mountains have long been a redoubt for anti-Gaddafi sentiment largely because of his refusal to recognize residents as a distinct ethnicity with its own unique culture and language. “Gaddafi wanted all of Libya to be Arab,” says a Berber from the region. “So he denied that we existed. He tried to wipe out our identity, wouldn’t let us learn our own language.” Another Libyan, also of Berber origin, described what was going on in the Nafusa towns of Nalut and Zintan as a “slow-motion genocide.” Both spoke of towns under siege, where shells fall indiscriminately on schools, houses and hospitals. Neither account could be independently verified, but U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz, now in Washington D.C., echoed the claims in a press conference, saying that pro-regime troops had laid siege to the civilian population there. “From the reports we’re getting they have been especially brutal in going after those towns in the western mountains…. apparently attempting to starve them into submission.”

The cross border attacks, combined with the siege, are an indication of just how dirty Gaddafi is willing to fight in his efforts to maintain control of the country. While NATO strikes have hit targets within his Tripoli compound, his regime shows few signs of wavering. Even the sanctions seem to have had little effect so far. Economic sanctions are nothing new to Libya, points out a former Tripoli resident who is helping to spread information about the humanitarian situation to foreign media and aid workers. “We’ve been through this before, and Gaddafi knows how to survive.” If sanctions won’t work, and NATO strikes limited, what are the options? “Unless something happens from the inside he is going to carry on to the end,” says the former Tripolitan. “And the longer he lasts, the more lives will be lost.”

Ambassador Cretz is equally at a loss for a solution. “It’s a very difficult proposition when you have a government which is willing to bring to bear all its power and everything it’s got to destroy its population,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet, so to speak, that’s going to convince Gaddafi to stop this.” If anything, the resistance in Nafusa seems to have driven him to greater extremes. Libyans helping refugees cross into Tunisia estimate that some 12,000 have passed through the border post since the rebels took it last week. Fleeing residents describe emptied towns and life at a standstill. One Libyan doctor, who quit his post in North America so he could help his countrymen, was appalled to see people streaming out with untreated injuries that were weeks old. The hospitals had been emptied of medical supplies he said over the phone, and few patients were able to take the arduous mountain trails popular with cross-border smugglers. And it wasn’t just war wounded, but patients in need of chemotherapy or dialysis, even insulin. Gaddafi, he said, had not only cut off food to the mountain communities, but vital medical supplies. “He won’t even allow ambulances out of the region. No he wants us dead. Anyone who says no to him, he will let them die.”

That’s why, the doctor said, it was so important that the rebels keep the border. Not for morale or tactical advantage, but for the people of the region in desperate need of medical care. “That road needs to stay open no mater what. If the UN Security Council resolution is about protecting civilians, keeping this lifeline open is about as essential as you can get.”