June 1, 2011 / 1:16 PM / 7 years ago

Supplies reaching blockaded Libyan town by donkey

* Rebels urge NATO aid drops to mountain town of Yafran

* Pro-Gaddafi forces holding town centre, rebels in hilltops

* Supplies entering via mountain trails, at night, on donkey

By Matt Robinson

ZINTAN, Libya, June 1 (Reuters) - Libyan rebels in the Western Mountains are using donkeys to carry supplies along trails behind enemy lines to the blockaded town of Yafran, where forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi face off with armed residents on the hilltops.

The nearby town of Gelaa is in a similar position, rebels and residents who left say, and rebels are urging NATO to carry out humanitarian aid drops in the area to alleviate severe shortages of food and drinking water.

“It’s a disaster,” said a man who gave his name as Mohammed, adding that he had walked to Zintan from Gelaa, between the positions of forces loyal to Gaddafi.

“I’m asking the rebels for help to open a route to Gelaa,” he said at the rebel military council headquarters in Zintan.

Last week, a foreign doctor in Zintan said two men walked two nights through the mountains from Yafran to get there.

The area lies some 20 km east of Zintan, the last in a chain of towns under rebel control stretching more than 200 km (125 miles) along the mountain plateau from the rebel-held border crossing with Tunisia.

Zintan itself is suffering food and water shortages. The town and several others in the Western Mountains have been without electricity for a week, cut off by pro-Gaddafi forces in the desert plains where electricity sub-stations are located.

Rebels are scrambling to import diesel generators to pump water from wells.

“Why can’t NATO do an aid flight (to Yafran)?” asked Colonel Juma Ibrahim, a senior rebel in Zintan and former MiG 25 fighter pilot in the Libyan air force. “It’s very easy,” he said. “Gaddafi’s forces pull back as soon as they hear the planes.”

HIT AND RUN

Like much of the Western Mountains, Yafran is populated by Arabs and Berbers, an ethnic minority in Libya who have joined the rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, seeing a chance to reassert an identity denied them under the Libyan leader.

The conflict in this region has descended into stalemate, punctuated by random shelling of the desert and the outskirts of rebel-held towns in what rebels say is a harassment tactic by pro-Gaddafi troops to force people to flee.

More than 40,000 have already done so, finding refuge in Tunisia.

Aid groups have been unable to reach Yafran and Doctors Without Borders this week pulled out of Zintan after shelling of the town centre threatened the hospital.

Rebels and residents who fled Yafran say pro-Gaddafi forces hold the centre, but men of the town who have taken up arms occupy a cluster of houses on high ground at the edge of town.

Fethi al-Ayab, a senior rebel in Zintan, said civilians remained in Yafran, Gelaa and the town of Kikla. The rebels have resorted to hit and run attacks, stealing weapons and ammunition to continue the fight.

This week they hit Kikla and came close to Yafran, losing a number of fighters but seizing at least three trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

“We were very close (to Yafran),” said al-Ayab. “We killed eight and arrested three.”

He said rebels were sending supplies, weapons and ammunition through mountain trails, using the kind of detailed knowledge of the plateau honed through generations of sheep farming and cultivating the olives, almonds and figs that this region was once renowned for.

“We’re using donkeys and horses,” he said. “We are sending ammunition through the mountains, but only during the night, because it’s too dangerous.”

A NATO spokesman said on Tuesday that “brutal and indiscriminate shelling” by pro-Gaddafi forces was making life “extremely difficult and dangerous for the population of Yafran.”

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