Libyan refugees flee fighting by land and sea

TRIPOLI Tue May 3, 2011 7:21pm EDT

1 of 19. A rebel fighter armed with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) controls an intersection at the western gate of Ajdabiyah May 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi is forcing thousands of refugees to flee western Libya on foot to the Tunisian border and by boat to Europe, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Rebels said they expected billions of dollars in credit soon from Western governments to feed and supply their territories in the east and support their campaign against Gaddafi.

Refugees fleeing western Libya have said the danger of starvation is growing in some besieged towns. Zintan has been heavily shelled, and aid deliveries to the port of Misrata have been hindered by artillery fire and a mine near the harbor entrance.

Rebel spokesmen said fighting had flared again in Misrata's eastern suburbs, near the port that provides the besieged city with a lifeline to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"Fighting is taking place in the area of Bourouia. The (pro-Gaddafi) brigades are trying to enter the Tamina area, east of the city," one spokesmen, Reda, told Reuters by telephone.

Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, has not been seen in public since a NATO missile attack on Saturday on a house in Tripoli which officials say he survived but which killed his youngest son and three grandchildren.

U.S. intelligence officials believe Gaddafi is still alive. "(The) best intelligence we have is that he's still alive," CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC television.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said an exodus from the Western Mountains region had resumed, with Libyan families fleeing into southern Tunisia.

"This past weekend, more than 8,000 people, most of them ethnic Berbers, arrived in Dehiba in southern Tunisia. Most are women and children," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva. Tens of thousands have already fled.

A violent sandstorm that battered the area had made the situation more difficult.

The Dehiba crossing point has changed hands several times in the last week, with fighting spilling over onto Tunisian soil.

"UNHCR and our partners are struggling to maintain nearby camps. The storm has destroyed hundreds of tents and two huge portable warehouses," Edwards said.

ECONOMY IN TATTERS

"Most of the Libyan refugees are leaving Libya in tribal groups. Many are choosing to stay in the camps for a few days before moving on to stay with Tunisian families," he said.

Meanwhile, more people have been fleeing Libya by sea to Italy, after a 10-day break due to bad weather. Some 3,200 have arrived on the island of Lampedusa over the past five days, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UNHCR.

Ali Tarhouni, head of the rebel national council's finance committee, said he expected France, Italy and the United States to extend credit secured against frozen Libyan state assets. Money should arrive in a week to ten days.

"I need about $2-3 billion and we are hoping to get most or all of this," Tarhouni told reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

With Libya's economy in tatters after more than two months of civil war, funds to pay for food, medicine and the state salaries on which most people depend are running low.

The insurgents had been hoping for a swift overthrow of Gaddafi but his better-trained and better-equipped militias halted the rebel advance west and forced a stalemate in the fighting that could last for months.

"We are still discovering different segments that need to be paid that we thought were paid," said Tarhouni. "At every single moment another need arises in terms of food, medicine and in terms of people who are injured."

Supplies of fuel vital to keeping eastern towns supplied and maintain the military campaign against Gaddafi are also tight.

Like anti-Gaddafi groups in other parts of Libya, rebels in the Western Mountains want more help from Western warplanes, empowered by a U.N. resolution to attack government forces to protect civilians.

Critics say NATO has already overstepped its mandate with Saturday night's attack on the Tripoli house. NATO insists it targets only military installations and was not attempting to assassinate the Libyan leader.

NATO minesweepers searched the approaches of Misrata harbor

on Monday for a drifting mine blocking aid supplies.

A NATO statement said the alliance had destroyed two of three mines laid by government forces. It said the mines were small and hard to detect but capable of doing serious damage.

The International Organization for Migration said an aid ship was still waiting off Misrata for bombing to stop and mines to be cleared before it tried to deliver supplies and evacuate some 1,000 foreigners and wounded Libyans.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Tarek Amara and Abdelaziz Boumzar in Dehiba, Deepa Babington and Michael Georgy in Benghazi, Maher Nazeh and Larbi Louafi in Tripoli, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, and Missy Ryan in Washington; writing by Andrew Roche and Ralph Boulton; editing by Christopher Wilson)