TUNISIAN-LIBYAN BORDER (Reuters) - Refugees fleeing Libya’s Western Mountains told of heavy bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces as they try to dislodge rebels in remote Berber towns.
The capture of the Dehiba-Wazin crossing on the Tunisian border by rebels last week has let refugees flee in cars or on foot along rocky paths, swelling the numbers of Libyans sheltering in southern Tunisia to an estimated 30,000 people.
While the world’s attention has been on the bloody siege of the western rebel stronghold of Misrata and battles further east, fighting is intensifying in the region known as the Western Mountains.
“Our town is under constant bombardment by Gaddafi’s troops. They are using all means. Everyone is fleeing,” said one refugee, Imad, bringing his family from Kalaa in the heart of the mountains.
Flanked by deserts, the mountain range stretches west for over 150 km (90 miles) from south of Tripoli to Tunisia, and is inhabited by Berbers who are ethnically distinct from most Libyans and long viewed with suspicion by the government.
The Western Mountains towns joined a wider revolt against Gaddafi’s autocratic four-decade-old rule in February.
They fear they are now paying the price while NATO efforts to whittle down Gaddafi’s forces from the air are concentrated on bigger population centers. Weaponry is more easily concealed among the region’s valleys and crags.
Adulrahman al-Zintani, a rebel spokesman in Zintan, said there had been no new air strikes from NATO since Thursday and Friday, when it attacked Gaddafi tanks north of the town.
He said Gaddafi’s forces were massing troops at Zintan’s eastern entrance and had been shelling daily from the north.
At least two rebels were killed and several wounded in fighting on Monday, rebels said. They also said they captured dozens of vehicles from Gaddafi’s forces in fighting not far from the town of Nalut, 50 km (30 miles) from the border.
Refugees escaping towns such as Zintan, where at least three people were killed by shelling on Sunday, and Yafran, where the two sides have been fighting for control, told of barrages of rocket fire and tank rounds.
“Fire like we saw yesterday must have killed dozens,” said one man who had escaped from Yafran, one of the biggest towns in the mountains, about 120 km (75 miles) southwest of Tripoli. He had not seen any victims himself before he fled.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates around 30,000 Libyans have fled to southern Tunisia since early this month, some being cared for in camps, but most finding hospitality wherever they can in private homes and community halls.
With another 1,500 or so arriving every day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is trying to triple the size of a camp already housing nearly 3,000 people to cope with the steady influx.
“They say they are fleeing shelling, violence, fighting between opposition forces and government forces. People were first crossing through the mountains, now they are taking the official route,” said Firas Kiyal of the UNHCR.
At the border post near Dehiba, which Gaddafi’s forces lost last week, turbanned rebels checked cars as anxious children peered through the glass. At a rickety table decorated with a small pre-Gaddafi flag, a rebel noted down names.
One rebel said they were watching for infiltrators.
Gaddafi’s government has not acknowledged the capture of the border post, smaller than the Ras Jdir crossing further north, and says the insurgents are hiding out in mountain caves.
Rebels cleaned their weapons and set up checkpoints several km into Libya, fearing an attack at any time to close the supply route which has allowed them to get food, fuel and medicines into the mountains as well as to let refugees out.
“We are ready for a new battle,” said one rebel. “We expect them to try to get back this important crossing point, but we will never give it up.”
Additional reporting by Zoubeir Souissi and Joseph Nasr; writing by Matthew Tostevin and Barbara Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche