Libyan Fighting for Key Border Crossing Spills Into Tunisia

A battle between Libyan government forces and rebels for a key border crossing spilled into Tunisia, part of violence spreading throughout the country as rebels struggle to sustain an uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

Fifteen trucks with Qaddafi regime troops entered Tunisia’s border town of Dehiba early today during a clash with rebels in which “dozens” were killed, state-run Tunis Afrique Presse said. The Libyan soldiers were disarmed and then released by Tunisian forces, Al-Jazeera television reported. Rebels retook control of the post after four hours of fighting, TAP said.

“The Tunisian authorities informed the Libyans of their extreme indignation and asked them to take immediate measures to stop these violations,” the Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement yesterday after cross-border shelling began. The skirmish highlighted intensified fighting in the mountainous region southwest of Tripoli, where U.S. officials say Qaddafi’s soldiers have been attacking minority Berbers.

More than two months of clashes in Libya have killed thousands and helped push oil prices up more than 30 percent. Much of the fighting has centered on the rebel-held western port city of Misrata, where opposition forces this week pushed Qaddafi loyalists out of the city center. Qaddafi’s troops continue to shell civilian areas in the city and attempted to mine part of the harbor, NATO said today.

Laying Mines

“Some vessels which, we assume were pro-Qaddafi, were laying mines in the area of the harbor, indiscriminately,” an alliance spokesman, Brigadier Rob Weighill, told reporters today from NATO’s command center in Naples, Italy.

Even though rebels have gained “significant” ground against Qaddafi’s forces, the regime has damaged Misrata’s sewer system and a desalination plant. Suggestions that the opposition is “winning” are “over-optimistic,” Weighill said.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is stepping up its air campaign, selecting targets closer to Qaddafi. The NATO spokesman said the alliance would also focus more on the Nafusah Mountains in western Libya near the border clash.

Alliance jets targeted 19 ammunition storage bunkers near Sirte and Mizdah, as well as rocket launchers, artillery vehicles and an armored personnel carrier in strikes carried out on April 27, NATO said in a statement today.

‘Especially Brutal’

Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, told reporters at the State Department April 27 that Qaddafi’s forces “have been especially brutal” in the western mountains “where there has always been a suspicion on the part of Qaddafi toward the Berber groups.” He said officials have seen estimates of as many as 30,000 people killed in the Libyan conflict since mid-February.

Thousands of Libyans fleeing the fighting crossed into Tunisia last night, the TAP news agency said.

The flare-up in violence in the west contrasts with the rebels’ frontline in the east, where running clashes with loyalists on the coastal road between the dictator’s hometown of Sirte and rebel-held Benghazi have ground to a standstill.

Qaddafi forces seized the town of Al-Kufrah in the country’s southeast desert region, in a province that’s home to some of Libya’s richest oil fields. About 250 Libyan soldiers in trucks descended on the town yesterday and drove out rebels, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday, citing rebels.

Crude oil for June delivery rose 14 cents to $113 a barrel at 9:18 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures are up 5.9 percent in April and have advanced every month since September, the longest streak of gains since the contract began trading in 1983. Prices have jumped 33 percent in the past year.

Libya has Africa’s biggest proven oil reserves. Its output is down 75 percent as the fighting forced producers such as Marathon Oil Corp. to evacuate workers.