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Rebels: Libyan army shells western mountain towns

- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Col. Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists shelled a mountain town and clashed with opposition forces in a besieged coastal city Wednesday, rebels said, as the Libyan leader sought to quell resistance in the western part of the country, which is largely under his control.

France and Italy, meanwhile, promised more support for Libya's opposition, saying they would join Britain in sending military advisers to help the rebels break a battlefield stalemate. France said it would also intensify airstrikes against Libyan military targets after a month of NATO airstrikes has failed to rout Col. Gadhafi's forces.

In Geneva, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem (Navi) Pillay, said Libyan government forces may be committing war crimes by using heavy weapons against civilians in the besieged port city of Misrata. Ms. Pillay said Col. Gadhafi's troops should be aware that their actions will be scrutinized by the International Criminal Court.

Fighting in Libya erupted two months ago when protests against Col Gadhafi's four decades in power turned into an armed uprising. Rebels now control most of the east, while Col. Gadhafi holds most of the west. However, there are rebel-held areas in western Libya, particularly the Nafusa mountain area that is home to Libya's Berber minority.

Since the weekend, the Nafusa region town of Yifran, with a population of about 25,000, has come under daily attack with Grad rockets, tank shells and anti-aircraft guns, said a rebel fighter, who would give only his first name, Belgassem, for fear of reprisals.

The fighting in the mountain region has sent thousands fleeing into nearby Tunisia. Four mortar shells from the fighting landed on Tunisian territory on Monday, Tunisian officials said.

The rebel fighter said the assault damaged a water tank as well as homes in Yifran. Doctors had to abandon the town's hospital because of the shelling, said Belgassem, speaking by phone from the nearby town of Qalaa.

Qalaa also has come under attack, but there was no shelling Wednesday, Belgassem said. "We are defending our city, and they can't get into the center because we are here," he said.

In Nalut, another mountain town near the Tunisian border, rebels fought off Gadhafi loyalists on Monday and pursued them for about 30 kilometers, said Ayman, a rebel fighter from Nalut. In clashes Tuesday, the rebels seized weapons and ammunition from Col. Gadhafi's forces, said Ayman, who would not give his last name for fear of repercussions.

He said four rebels were killed in two days of fighting.

International aid officials said more than 10,000 people from the Nafusa mountain area have fled to Tunisia in recent days, avoiding official border crossings manned by Gadhafi loyalists. The refugees stay in camps near the Tunisian border towns of Dehiba and Remada, or are being hosted by Tunisian families.

Firas Kayal, an official with the U.N. refugee agency, said the Libyan border area "has apparently been under heavy fighting and shelling between opposition forces and Gadhafi."

The refugees "enter in the cars, through the mountains, cars filled with luggage and families and women and children and personal items," he said.

Yifran, Qalaa, Nalut and others near the Tunisian borders are inhibited by Berbers, who suffered under Col. Gadhafi repressive policies. Col. Gadhafi has dubbed Berbers as 'product of colonialism' created by the West to divide Libya. In the 1970s, members of pan-Berber associations were arrested and Berber activities were banned.

New clashes erupted Wednesday in the other rebel outpost in western Libya, the city of Misrata.

Exchanges of fire were heard between Libyan troops and armed residents in the city center. NATO planes flew overhead, but did not carry out airstrikes. Snipers opened fire from rooftops, said Abdel Salam, a rebel fighter who wanted to be identified only by his given name for fear of reprisal.

The rebels control the port area, while Col. Gadhafi's forces have deployed along Tripoli Street, a downtown thoroughfare.

Misrata has been under siege for nearly two months. In recent days, Col. Gadhafi's forces have intensified their assault on the city, firing tank shells and rockets into residential areas, according to witnesses and human rights groups.

Ms. Pillay urged Libyan authorities to halt their siege of the city and allow medical care to reach victims. She said it is "clear that the numbers (of casualties) are now substantial and that the dead include women and children."

Hundreds of migrant workers and wounded people have been evacuated by boats, which also have delivered humanitarian supplies, including food and medicine.

The rebels received a boost when Italy and France announced they are joining Britain in sending military advisers to help organize the opposition forces. Many of the rebels have had little battle experience or military training.

The announcements came after a representative of the rebels' transitional government met with French and Italian leaders. The French Foreign Ministry said it already has military liaison officers on the ground in the rebel-held city of Benghazi. The officers are trying to help the rebels organize and bolster the NATO air campaign that has failed to rout Col. Gadhafi's military.

Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this article.

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