Tunisian army repels Gaddafi troops in border clash
Tunisian troops exchanged fire with Libyan government troops on Friday after pro-Gaddafi forces crossed the border near the town of Dehiba in hot pursuit of a group of Libyan rebel fighters.
REUTERS - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi crossed into neighbouring Tunisia and fought a gun battle with Tunisian troops in a frontier town on Friday as Libya’s conflict spilled beyond its borders.
Pro-Gaddafi forces fired shells into the town of Dehiba, damaging buildings and injuring at least one resident, and a group of them drove into the town in a truck in pursuit of anti-Gaddafi rebels.
The Libyan government troops were chasing rebels from the restive Western Mountains region of Libya who fled into Tunisia in the past few days after Gaddafi forces overran the border post the rebels had earlier seized.
While the Libyan forces were battling in Dehiba, the rebels who are fighting to end more than four decades of Gaddafi’s rule announced they had seized back the border post.
Rebels seized the post a week ago, as it controls the only road link which their comrades in Libya’s Western Mountains have with the outside world, making them rely otherwise on rough tracks for supplies of food, fuel and medicine.
After weeks of advances and retreats by rebel and government forces along the Mediterranean coast, fighting has settled into a pattern of clashes and skirmishes.
The fighting for the crossing between Dehiba in Tunisia and Wazin on the Libyan side was typical of the fluid and confused conflict, which broke out in mid-February.
Some of Gaddafi’s soldiers were killed and wounded in the fighting in Dehiba. Two residents told Reuters that shells had fallen on the town from pro-Gaddafi positions across the border in Libya.
“Rounds from the bombardment are falling on houses.... A Tunisian woman was injured,” one of the residents, called Ali, told Reuters by telephone.
He said later the fighting and shelling had stopped. “The Tunisian army is combing the town. We have no idea about the fate of Gaddafi’s forces there because the Tunisian army closed the gates to the town and nobody is allowed to enter.”
Tunisia toppled its own veteran leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in a revolution earlier this year that triggered turmoil through the Middle East and many Tunisians are sympathetic to the rebels fighting Gaddafi’s forces.
A Libyan rebel said anti-Gaddafi fighters had retaken control of the border crossing near Dehiba. The main crossing into Libya, two hours’ drive to the north, remains firmly under Libyan government control.
“Right here at this point I’m looking at the new (rebel) flag flying up there at the border. The rebels have got control of it, the freedom fighters. We’re just in the process of opening it up,” rebel Akram el Muradi said by telephone.
Tunisia’s government late on Thursday issued a statement condemning incursions by Libyan forces after shells fired by Gaddafi loyalists fell into the desert near the border.
Friday’s clashes marked the first time that Libyan government ground forces had crossed the border and entered a Tunisian town.
Residents said that a crowd of local people gathered in Dehiba on Friday morning to try to prevent pro-Gaddafi forces from entering the town.
They said the Tunisian military fired in the air to disperse them, and urged the demonstrators to seek shelter from the shelling inside their homes.
Inside Libya, NATO air strikes hit Gaddafi loyalists attacking the rebel held town of Zintan, a rebel spokesman said from there.
In the rebels’ stronghold, Benghazi, a doctor said shelling by Gaddafi’s forces in the besieged city of Misrata killed 12 people on Thursday, including two women. He said the dead were victims of rocket and mortar fire.
Oil traders in Asia said on Friday a tanker with the first major oil shipment from rebel-held east Libya is expected to arrive in China next week.
The Liberia-registered tanker Equator, reported to be carrying 80,000 tonnes of crude, left the rebel-held east Libyan port of Marsa el Hariga three weeks ago, carrying fuel exports vital to financing the uprising against Gaddafi.
The buyer of the cargo was not clear as trading house Vitol, which is managing the shipment, has not commented on its Libyan transactions. Traders said that finding a buyer was not straightforward due to concerns over legal complications related to the ownership of oil and international sanctions.