Rebels, Gadhafi troops battle for key border post

TUNIS, Tunisia — Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces launched an offensive Thursday against a rebel-held border post in western Libya in a sharp escalation of the conflict in the rugged, remote Nafusa mountains.

Firing rockets and machine guns, Gadhafi's forces briefly seized the town of Wazin, on Libya's southern border with Tunisia, raising the green flag of Gadhafi's regime over the small border checkpoint. A few hours later, however, Tunisian witnesses said that three dozen rebel vehicles rolled down into Wazin from opposition-controlled mountain villages and chased the pro-Gadhafi fighters away.

By nightfall, Libya's tricolor pre-Gadhafi flag, favored by the rebels, again flew over the strategic crossing. Rebels said they also took six four-wheel-drive vehicles from Gadhafi's side.

"Now we're back in control and Gadhafi's forces escaped," said Mahmoud Sejouck, a Libyan opposition supporter who witnessed the clashes from inside Tunisia.

Rebels had seized Wazin a week ago, giving thousands of civilians the chance to seek refuge in southern Tunisian towns and allowing their forces to restock supplies. More than 30,000 people have fled the fighting in western Libya, according to United Nations officials.

With the ground war along Libya's Mediterranean coast at a stalemate and rebels withstanding daily Gadhafi attacks on the coastal town of Misrata, hostilities are escalating in the sparsely populated Nafusa mountains, which opposition supporters have controlled since the start of the 10-week-old uprising.

Wazin lies roughly at the halfway point between Tripoli, the capital, and the southern desert town of Ghadames, which is said to be an important supply point for Gadhafi's forces. Rebels control a 100-mile highway stretching north from Wazin to Zintan, a population center that Gadhafi forces have bombarded repeatedly.

In recent days, Libyans say, Gadhafi has massed military vehicles in valleys below the rebel-held mountain villages and cut cellphone service in Nalut, a key rebel outpost 30 miles west of Wazin.

Witnesses said that at least two Gadhafi soldiers and two rebels were killed in Thursday's fighting. Four wounded Gadhafi soldiers were being treated in a hospital in the southern Tunisian town of Tataouine.

A reporter for Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel, was also wounded, although not critically.

The late-afternoon clashes spilled into the Tunisian town of Dehiba, less than a mile from the border. Gadhafi's forces fired Grad rockets and 14.5 mm bullets into Tunisian territory, according to Moez Ben Yahya, a Dehiba resident.

In the east, Gadhafi forces easily took the southern city of Kufrah, which sits near the Chadian border. The remote city is strategically important for control of the nearby city of Sareer, home to Libya's largest oil reserves. Residents said that more than 50 vehicles filled with Gadhafi forces came through Thursday, though it appeared that only a handful were armed. Regardless, the overwhelmed city easily surrendered.

In Benghazi, more than 900 people fleeing the besieged city of Misrata arrived by boat Thursday morning, more than 30 of whom needed medical care.

On Libyan state television, an announcer joyfully reported on flooding in the United States, saying it was punishment from God for U.S. efforts to end Gadhafi's regime.

(Youssef reported from eastern Libya.)


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