- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A Libyan rebel leader said Thursday that opposition forces have control of a post on the Tunisian border near a former rebel-held town, which could open a new channel for anti-government forces in Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s bastion in western Libya.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, meanwhile, relief workers and medical teams awaited the arrival of a passenger ferry carrying about 1,000 people — mostly Libyan civilians and workers from Asia and Africa — out of the besieged city of Misrata, the main rebel holdout in Col. Gadhafi’s territory.

Also aboard the vessel were the bodies of an Oscar-nominated documentary maker from Britain and an American photographer who were killed covering clashes Wednesday. A day earlier, the ferry arrived in Misrata, delivering food and medical supplies to the beleaguered population.

The reported capture of the border crossing followed three days of intense fighting outside the desert town of Nalut, about 140 miles southwest of the capital, Tripoli, said a rebel leader, Shaban Abu Sitta. The area was in hands of anti-government forces last month before Libyan troops moved in.

Holding the Dhuheiba border crossing could open important supply routes for anti-Gadhafi forces and give the rebels another foothold in western Libya. The claim could not be independently verified. Col. Gadhafi’s forces have sharply restricted the movement of journalists in the areas they control in western Libya.

“Rebels are now manning Dhuheiba crossing,” said Mr. Abu Sitta, who claimed his fighters had destroyed 30 army pickup trucks and captured 10 cars and some weapons.

On the Ionian Spirit ferry — part of a maritime lifeline to Misrata — Libyan civilians and migrants workers packed the decks, hallways and every other available space. In the ship’s Panorama Bar, evacuees tossed mattresses onto the wooden dance floor. Women slipped behind a curtain to change.

The injured were brought to the lower level of the ship, where an 11-member medical team set up a makeshift intensive care unit.

Jeremy Haslam, a coordinator from the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, said the boat has more than 1,000 evacuees, including 239 Libyan civilians, 586 migrants from Niger, and others from Africa and Asia.

He said some Libyans had tried to flee Misrata aboard a tugboat but were turned away because the vessel was overcrowded. Some managed to get aboard the ferry.

“We are carrying more than we are supposed to, but it’s better than letting these people leave on a tugboat,” Mr. Haslam said.

The number of people seeking to flee Misrata has surged as Libyan forces expand their shelling to areas once considered relatively safe havens from attacks.

“Our neighborhood became a war zone, so we had to get out,” said Faiza Stayta, who made it aboard the ferry with her husband and two children. “All the firing is random. You hear a rocket and … have no idea if it will come down on your house.”

The vessel carried the bodies of Chris Hondros, a New York-based photographer for Getty Images, and British-born Tim Hetherington, co-director of the 2010 Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film was co-directed by Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm.”

They were killed Wednesday in an attack that also injured two other photographers. A statement from Mr. Hetherington’s family said he was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade. The ship also held the body of a Ukrainian doctor killed Wednesday by an artillery blast, Mr. Haslam said.

The IOM is planning to send another ship to Misrata with 500 tons of food and medical supplies. The group said it has evacuated more than 3,100 people from Misrata.

Ben. Hubbard reported from aboard the Ionian Spirit. Associated Press writer Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report from Cairo.


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