TRIPOLI– NATO planes pounded Libyan government weapons depots southeast of the town of Zintan on Monday, in a sign of widening conflict in the Western Mountains region as rebel’s battle to unseat Muammar Gaddafi.
"The air strikes occurred around 1100 (5 a.m. EDT). We saw big plumes of smoke and heard explosions," said a rebel spokesman in Zintan who gave his name as Abdulrahman. There was no immediate comment from NATO or from Tripoli. Two months into a conflict linked to this year's uprisings in other Arab countries, rebels hold Benghazi and towns in the east while the government is firmly in control of the capital and other major cities.
Tripoli says most Libyans support Gaddafi, the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants, and NATO's intervention is an act of colonial aggression by Western powers seeking to steal the country's oil.
The rebels face a government with superior firepower and resources but they achieved a financial breakthrough on Monday, selling oil worth $100 million paid for through a Qatari bank in U.S. dollars, a member of their oil and gas support group said.
They desperately need money for food and medicine, and this prompted Western and Arab countries last week to promise a cash lifeline potentially worth billions of dollars.
SHOT AT CLOSE QUARTERS
A stalemate prevails in much of Libya and the war is increasingly focused on the port city of Misrata -- scene of weeks of intense fighting as rebels try to cling on in the face of a government siege -- and on the Western Mountains.
Evidence of the ferocity of the fighting in that region was clear at a small clinic in the Tunisian frontier town of Dehiba where wounded rebels from rebel-held Zintan seek treatment.
Most were shot at close quarters as they tried to hold back loyalists east of Zintan. Eleven people died on Saturday alone, their names displayed at a refugee camp in Dehiba that lodges their families.
"They are heroes, they are Mujahideen," said Jamal Maghroub, whose nephew was among those killed.
The region is home to the Berber ethnic minority and was among the first to rise against Gaddafi who has been in power since 1969. Fighting has intensified there since rebels seized the Dehiba border crossing into Tunisia last month, opening an artery for badly-needed supplies.
But their hold on the flat-topped mountains is precarious and there is no sign they can advance against the superior firepower of forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Zintan, around 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Tripoli, is surrounded on three sides, according to rebel fighters and medical workers ferrying the wounded out across the border.
The front-line is fluid and Gaddafi's forces hold the desert valleys, lobbing mortars and rockets at the mountains above.
New York-based Human Rights Watch accused loyalist forces on Monday of "repeated indiscriminate attacks" on residential areas in the mountain towns of Nalut, Takut and Zintan.
The war has killed thousands and caused extensive suffering, not least for African migrants forced to flee.
In one possible example, NATO said on Monday it was investigating a newspaper report that alliance units failed to help a drifting boat carrying African migrants from Libya, leading to the deaths of 62 people from thirst and hunger.
The boat carrying 72 people, including several women, young children and political refugees, ran into trouble after leaving Tripoli for the Italian island of Lampedusa on March 25, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.
An alarm was raised with the Italian coastguard and the boat made contact with a military helicopter and a NATO warship. But no rescue effort was attempted and all but 10 died after their vessel drifted for 16 days, the report said.
"We are looking into the allegations of the Guardian. I hope to have a reaction soon," NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. "NATO vessels are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to international maritime law on safety of lives at sea." (Reuters)