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Sat 7 May 2011 02:36 PM

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Libyan fighting spreads over Tunisia border

Schools evacuated as artillery rounds fired by Gaddafi forces fall in frontier town of Dehiba

Libyan fighting spreads over Tunisia border

Artillery rounds fired by forces loyal to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi fell in Tunisia on Saturday as fighting broke out near the border between Libyan soldiers and anti-Gaddafi rebels.

Schools were evacuated and residents scurried for safety in the Tunisian frontier town of Dehiba, which has been hit repeatedly by stray shells in recent weeks as the Libyan rivals fight for control of a nearby border crossing.

Fighting has intensified in Libya's Western Mountains region as Gaddafi loyalists and rebels, backed by NATO bombing, reach stalemate on other fronts in the war over Africa's third biggest oil producer.

Billows of dust and rock marked where at least four projectiles struck on the Tunisian side.

The battle is for control of the Dehiba-Wazzin border crossing, which gives the rebels a road from the outside world into strongholds in the Western Mountains region where they are fighting to end Gaddafi's rule of more than four decades.

The crackle of small arms could be heard from about 4 km (2.5 miles) inside Libya, where rebels and loyalists exchanged fire, but the border post remained open - most of the cars carrying refugees fleeing the fighting.

"We are very afraid. The missiles are falling right around us, we don't know what to do," said Tunisian Mohammed Naguez, a resident of Dehiba. "Our children are afraid. The Tunisian authorities have to stop this."

Although the rebels hold the Dehiba-Wazzin border point, Gaddafi's forces are in charge of a far bigger one to the north.

Most of the people in the Western Mountains belong to the Berber ethnic group and are distinct from other Libyans.

They rose up two months ago and say towns such as Zintan and Yafran are under repeated bombardment from Gaddafi's forces, running short of food, water and medicine.

Rebels have been aided by NATO airstrikes against loyalist heavy weaponry, but it has not been enough to give them a decisive edge.

Last week, fighting at the Tunisian border crossed into Dehiba itself, drawing furious protests to Libya from Tunisia's authorities. Tunisian soldiers set up blockades and patrolled inside Dehiba on Saturday after the fighting resumed.

More than 30,000 Libyan refugees have crossed from the Western Mountains into Tunisia, where many are being hosted by local families.

Sympathy for the Libyan rebels tends to be strong in Tunisia, where the ousting of an authoritarian president in January after 23 years in power sparked uprisings in Libya and across the Arab world.

Western powers are trying to go beyond the NATO bombing campaign against troops loyal to Gaddafi to find other ways of helping an uprising that prised eastern Libya from his control but then stalled.

The bombing and imposition of a no-fly zone, both intended to protect civilians, have not prevented scores being killed in government attacks on remaining pockets of rebellion in western Libya, notably the besieged cities of Misrata and Zintan, in the Western Mountains.

Amnesty International said on Friday that indiscriminate attacks on Misrata, including the use of snipers, cluster bombs and artillery in civilian areas, might amount to war crimes.

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