TRIPOLI/DEHIBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi overran a western rebel outpost on the Tunisian border on Thursday, with fighting spilling onto Tunisian territory, witnesses said.
The attack appeared to be part of a broader government move to root out rebel outposts beyond the confines of their eastern heartland. Rebels said the western mountain town of Zintan came under fire from multiple-launch Grad rockets seen as especially hazardous to civilian areas because of their inaccuracy.
Libyan rebels captured the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing to Tunisia a week ago and had since expanded their control to reach about 10 km (six miles) inside Libya from the crossing point. The counter-attack began with shelling of retreating rebels.
“Fighting broke out on the Tunisian territory, in Dehiba, after Gaddafi’s forces attacked the border crossing,” said Ali, a Tunisian involved in helping Libyans arriving in Dehiba.
“The rebels have withrawn and are now inside Tunisia.”
Reuters photographer Zoubeir Soussi said Gaddafi’s forces now controlled the crossing. No more details were available and there was no immediate comment from Tunisian authorities.
Libyan state television said some rebels had been killed and others taken prisoner in the recapture of the border post.
After weeks of fast moving advances and retreats by rebel and government forces along the Mediterranean coast, fighting has settled into a pattern of clashes and skirmishes, with Gaddafi seeking to root out rebel outposts in the West.
The town of Zintan came under heavy missile fire for a second day from Russian-made Grad missiles.
“Today alone, 80 missiles hit the town. We knew they are Grad missiles by the sound they make and we checked what remained of them,” the spokesman, identifying himself as Abdulrahman, said by telephone.
“The rebels are preventing the army reaching the city. That is why Gaddafi forces are using missiles to subjugate the town”.
Gaddafi denies his forces are attacking civilians and describes his opponents as Islamist extremists and foreign-backed agitators who deliberately put non-combatants in harm’s way. Libyan authorities make no routine announcements about military actions.
Battlefield stalemate has stirred unease among Western and Arab states that backed a United Nations resolution endorsing British and French-backed NATO air strikes to protect civilians. Rebels seek stronger action to break Gaddafi while critics say NATO has exceeded its mandate and targeted the Libyan leader.
Fighting in the mountainous western areas has prompted a movement of refugees towards the Tunisian border. Rebels say use of Grad missiles, which fragment and produce strong shockwaves, has further endangered civilians and added to the flow of refugees.
The Arabic Al Jazeera television said forces under Gaddafi, who has ruled the oil-producer for more than four decades, also clashed with rebels in the remote southeastern district of Kufra, near the Egyptian border. It gave no further details.
Government troops kept up shelling overnight of the besieged rebel outpost of Misrata, where aid ships bring in emergency supplies and evacuate the wounded. A local doctor said by telephone that seven insurgents were killed overnight when a checkpoint came under rocket and heavy artillery fire.
An international aid ship, with 850 migrant workers who were evacuated from Misrata during a lull in shelling, docked in Benghazi on Thursday. The workers, mostly from Niger, were being taken to the Egyptian border for repatriation.
The United States voiced confidence in the Benghazi-based council on Wednesday as the U.S. Treasury moved to permit oil deals with the group, which is struggling to provide funding for the battle-scarred areas under its control.
The order by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control may help to clear up concerns among potential buyers over legal complications related to ownership of Libyan oil and the impact of international sanctions.
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Algiers, Guy Desmond and Maher Nazeh in Tripoli, Deepa Babington and Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Ralph boulton; Editing by Giles Elgood