In Libya’s Forgotten West, Rebels Gain Ground

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According to reports, rebel forces fighting the regime of Muammar Gaddafi seized a strategic Libyan border crossing with Tunisia in the country’s remote, rugged west. Tunisia’s state news agency reported that at least 13 officers formerly serving the Gaddafi regime fled across the Tunisian border to the town of Dehiba, as rebels took control of Wazin on the Libyan side. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi — far away to the east — told the New York Times that the number of regime soldiers defecting their posts and seeking Tunisian asylum was over 100.

It seems a morale-boosting victory for the rebels, who have seen their revolt against Gaddafi rule lurch into a bloody, bitter war of attrition. Media coverage of the struggle has focused largely on clashes along Libya’s coastal rim, where the bulk of the population lives in cities such as besieged Misratah — a pivotal Gulf of Sidra port that has been the site of relentless shelling in recent weeks, leading to countless civilian casualties, including those of two award-winning Western photojournalists slain yesterday. But a heated insurgency has also raged in the western mountains — the U.N. estimates at least 14,000 Libyan refugees fled across the Dehiba border crossing just in the past two weeks.

If firmly under rebel control, the border crossing could prove valuable. The Times quotes rebel commander Col. Ahmed Bani in Benghazi: “This is a supply line linking us to Tunisia.” Aid and perhaps even weapons could be brought through, reinforcing rebel fighters as operations pick up in and around the cities of Zintan and Nalut — the site of a historic medieval granary. It’s not clear how much popular support the rebels have garnered here. The Guardian reports of the deepening conflict in the west:

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 reports from rebels. Grad rockets, tank shells and anti-aircraft guns have been fired on Yifran, home to about 25,000, and medics were forced to abandon the hospital.

The prospect of an immediate ceasefire has presently faded: Gaddafi forces continue to bomb the country’s cities and the European nations most eager for intervention — France, the U.K., and Italy — have dispatched military advisers to Benghazi to boost the rebel war effort. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed April 21 that the Pentagon has been running armed Predator drone missions over Libya. My colleague Mark Thompson writes on TIME’s new military affairs blog Battleland:

The Predators’ goal: to seek out and destroy forces loyal to Gaddafi that are threatening civilians in that country. They join U.S. F-16CJs and EA-18s that have been flying missions over Libya since the U.S. gave up command of the operation Mar. 31.

Despite the rebels’ now longstanding complaints of NATO’s relative inability to restrain Gaddafi’s assaults on his people, most do not want foreign troops on Libyan soil. Today, rebels fighting street to street in Misratah claimed they had cleared the main thoroughfare — Tripoli Street — of Gaddafi fighters and snipers, a victory that allegedly prompted scenes of jubilation through the war-ravaged city. The fighting, though, is far from over and observers are increasingly linking Misratah’s plight with that of another once elegant city hollowed out by war. Here’s an excerpt from an April 21 communique released by the global intelligence firm STRATFOR:

[Misratah] is developing an image in the rest of the world as a Libyan version of Sarajevo, the Bosnian city which held out for four years while surrounded by Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces during the Yugoslav civil war. Misurata is now seen as Benghazi was in mid-March: the city whose collapse would usher in a humanitarian crisis. (It was only when Benghazi appeared on the verge of falling that the U.N. resolution which cleared the way for the implementation of the NATO no-fly zone was rushed through). Furthermore, the ongoing rebellion in [Misratah] shows that resistance against Gadhafi is not confined to eastern Libya and therefore that the rebellion is not a secessionist struggle.

Further gains in the west can only amplify the fact — one which outsiders have taken for granted — that the revolt against Gaddafi is a nationwide phenomenon. But it doesn’t bring a conflict now flaring on multiple fronts anywhere closer to an end. And, while the allusion to Sarajevo may be stirring and emotive, it’s still very much a history lesson shrouded in tragedy.