Libyans flee violence in remote western area

TUNIS Sun Apr 17, 2011 3:05pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of Libyans fleeing attacks by pro-government forces in a remote and mountainous western region poured across the border into neighboring Tunisia on Sunday, a resident and refugees said.

The violence in the Western Mountains region, a sparsely-populated area, has received little of the international attention given to attacks on cities on the coast such as Misrata and Ajdabiyah.

"Their number is very large. The number is still increasing," Ali, a Tunisian involved in helping Libyans arriving in the southern Tunisian border town of Dehiba, said.

"They are in thousands. Hundreds arrived a few minutes ago. They are from several areas including Nalut, Yafran and Rajban," he said by phone.

The Western Mountains region, which includes the towns of Nalut, Kalaa, Yafran and Zintan, is populated by Berbers, a group ethnically distinct from most Libyans and traditionally viewed with suspicion by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

When people in the eastern city of Benghazi revolted against Gaddafi's four-decade rule in February, residents in the Western Mountains region, southwest of Tripoli, joined in.

Libyan officials deny attacking civilians, and say they are waging a battle against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda sympathizers who, they say, are trying to destroy the country.

Ali, who declined to give his last name, said rockets had landed in a place in Libya called in al-Ghazaia 6 km (4 miles) from Dehiba on Sunday.

Mohamed, a Libyan from Nalut, said he had just arrived with his family at the Tunisian border crossing.

"There is random bombardment on Nalut. All residents in Nalut are coming here to flee," he said.

Aissa, from the same town, said: "I'm part of a convoy which included about 500 people fleeing death."

Nearly 4,000 Libyans fleeing the western region have crossed over into Tunisia's southern Tataouine region in the last 10 days, Tunisia's state TAP news agency said on Friday.

People who arrived last week in Tunisia from the Western Mountains region told Reuters that Gaddafi's forces were shelling homes, poisoning wells and threatening to rape women in the region.

(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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