- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces rocketed rebel fighters Thursday in the formidable strongholds and training camps they have built up in the strategic mountain heights southwest of the Libyan capital, rebels said.

The two sides appeared to be fighting for control of the two highways to the north and south of the Nafusa mountain range, which slices across the desert south of Tripoli to the western border with Tunisia. Rebels, in particular, have used the roads, bringing in supplies for camps to train fighters for what they hope will be a future push on the capital.

As the fighting intensified this week, the rebel leadership in the east of the country said Thursday it was getting graphic reports of hospitals overwhelmed with casualties and of wounded having to be loaded onto donkeys and smuggled past government blockades to get treatment elsewhere.

The situation in the Nafusa mountains “remains dire, really dire,” said Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebel governing council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The mountain range has been one of the few zones of opposition in western Libya since the early days of the uprising in mid-February against Col. Gadhafi’s four-decade rule. Most of the rebel forces are concentrated in the east.

The long highways on either side of the mountain range are key to both sides. The government needs easy passage without harassment from the ridgeline above if it wants to keep control of a huge swath of the west.

The rebels run supplies from the border. Also, they have used the passageway to smuggle back fighters who had fled battles in other parts of the country and ended up in Tunisia, said Omar Hussein, a spokesman for the Nafusa mountain rebels.

Their position on the roads from the mountains to the former rebel stronghold of Zawiya on the north coast and Tripoli beyond made them a target, he said.

Gadhafi knows that the rebels’ plan is to come down from the mountains, then head to Zawiya, and from there to Tripoli. He is trying to delay this march,” Mr. Hussein said.

Much of Thursday’s fighting focused on the city of Zintan, the rebel command center for the mountain range. Rebels fought to hold back government troops rocketing their positions to the east and southeast of Zintan, said resident and activist Hamed Enbayah. The shelling killed at least one rebel fighter and wounded three others, he said.

Points along the entire mountain range have been under intensified attack since early this week. Residents of some areas said the fighting had trapped them inside their homes and cut off food and medical supplies.

Hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties and running out of supplies, and fighters sleep in trenches, the rebels said. Many of the wounded from one village, Kiklah, were being smuggled out on donkeys because government forces were blocking evacuations, the rebel council said.

It has appealed for help in establishing a safe corridor to deliver humanitarian aid and allow the wounded to be evacuated.

“It is abundantly clear that Gadhafi forces continue to target innocent civilians,” said the council’s vice chairman, Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga. “The blocking of food, water and medical supplies is unacceptable.”

Mr. Hussein, the spokesman for the Nafusa rebels, claimed that a government soldier killed in fighting near the town of Nalut, closer to the border with Tunisia, was found chained to his destroyed vehicle, apparently to prevent him from fleeing.

Elsewhere in the west, along the Mediterranean coast, a resident of the city of Ajaylat reached by telephone from Benghazi said Col. Gadhafi’s forces had stormed in Wednesday and kidnapped hundreds of people, most of them young men and boys. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Ajaylat is known as a haven for smugglers taking Libya‘s cheap fuel across the border to Tunisia, about 50 miles away, and bringing back other goods.

The kidnapping claim could not be independently confirmed, but Amnesty International has made similar allegations of abductions in Misrata, saying scores of young men were “subjected to enforced disappearance.”

In Tripoli, Libya‘s capital, hundreds of Col. Gadhafi’s loyalists staged an overnight show of support, proclaiming that the rebel insurgency was nearing an end. Young men carrying assault rifles fired into the air and set off fireworks.

Late on Wednesday, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim denied rumors that Col. Gadhafi’s wife and daughter had fled to Tunisia. “They are in Tripoli; they are safe,” he said. He also denied that Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem defected, saying he was in Vienna, Austria, on business.

An official in Tunisia’s Interior Ministry denied Thursday that Col. Gadhafi’s family members are in Tunisia. “No member of the Gadhafi family has come to Tunisia. We will not authorize their entry into Tunisian territory because that would be in violation of U.N. decisions that we respect,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Mr. Ghanem crossed into neighboring Tunisia by road on Monday and defected, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Arab League representative from Libya who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.

A person who answered a cellphone listed for Mr. Ghanem in Austria and identified herself as his daughter said the family had had no contact with him since Friday and did not know his whereabouts. The woman’s identity could not be verified.

Sarah El Deeb reported from Cairo. Additional reporting by Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis.

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