Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces have laid siege to towns in Libya’s Western Mountains, cutting off essential supplies and creating a humanitarian crisis among the mostly ethnic Berber population, rebels and other sources in Libya said.
Some of these sparsely populated towns, which have been cut off for nearly two months, no longer have baby formula or essential medical supplies, Libyan sources said. Their stocks of food and gas also are running dangerously low.
Rebels said they have repelled attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces in Zintan and Nalut, the bigger cities in the Western Mountains. However, the regime’s forces are now within striking distance of Jadu and Ar Rajban, according to residents of those two towns.
The U.N. refugee agency said more than 500 Libyans from the region, mostly Berbers, fled their homes and sought shelter in the Dehiba area of southeast Tunisia in the span of a week earlier this month.
“They have told us that mounting pressure on the cities of the Western Mountains by government forces, lack of basic medical supplies and shortages of food prompted their departure,” said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
Ras Adjir, a border crossing on the Libya-Tunisia border, has become the main exit point for tens of thousands of people who have been fleeing Libya since the conflict started in mid-February.
The plight of the Western Mountains people has been overshadowed by the Gadhafi regime’s deadly attacks on larger cities across Libya, including Misrata in the west, which was the scene of intense bombardment again on Sunday.
NATO jets have struck targets in the Western Mountains, but residents said the attacks have done little to slow the advance of pro-Gadhafi forces.
Sifaw, a Jadu resident who only gave his first name, told The Washington Times that NATO jets had struck an abandoned radar near his town twice in less than a week.
“The radar hadn’t been used in 15 years, yet they dropped 10 bombs on it. For what?” he said. “Gadhafi’s forces are sitting outside Jadu. We can see his tanks from the edge of the mountain. These are clear targets for NATO, but they haven’t been hit.”
The regime has cut off the electricity supply to Jadu three times. “Each time our engineers reconnected the supply,” Sifaw said.
Residents of the mountain towns never have relied on the outside for water, boring wells to meet their needs. However, water tankers that carry the water to residents have ground to a halt because of a scarcity of gas.
The towns have received some food and medical supplies from across the border with Tunisia.
Over the weekend, that lifeline was threatened when Col. Gadhafi’s forces shelled Wazin, a town near the Libya-Tunisia border that has been a vital entry point for the aid.
The Berber are “proudly anti-Gadhafi,” according to another resident of a Western Mountains town who declined to give his name.
Many of the towns fly the rebel flag instead of Col. Gadhafi’s green flag.
In a rambling speech last month, Col. Gaddafi compared the coalition forces to “backwards Berbers.”
A January 2009 U.S. Embassy cable leaked by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks noted that “anti-Berber sentiment in Libya is not a new phenomenon.”
A 2008 U.S. Embassy cable said the embassy’s efforts to visit areas with significant Berber populations had been met with “angry [Libyan government] denials and accusations of ‘unacceptable interference’ in Libya’s domestic affairs.”
Meanwhile, NATO jets destroyed targets near Tripoli; Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold, Sirte; and Misrata over the weekend.
“NATO has made an amazing effort. Now they need to take it up a notch or two to eliminate the suffering in Misrata,” said Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in the city 130 miles east of Tripoli who asked that only his first name be used out of concern for his safety.