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Wed 1 Jun 2011 05:58 PM

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Qatari weapons reaching rebels in Libyan mountains

Mortar set seen in rebel cache bears 'Qatar' stamp; arms, ammunition said to enter via Tunisia

Qatari weapons reaching rebels in Libyan mountains
LIBAYN REBEL: In Libyas west, the rebels hold a chain of towns stretching more than 200 km across a bleak mountain plateau from the Tunisian border (Getty Images)

Rebel fighters in Libya's Western Mountains say they are smuggling in arms and ammunition from the rebel coastal stronghold in Benghazi, via Tunisia, and at least some of the weapons appear to originate in Qatar.

Officially, rebels fighting on the western front of Libya's three-month-old war say the only way they replenish ammunition is by taking it from enemy soldiers they capture or kill in battles with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

Some are poorly-equipped, and heavy weaponry does appear to be in short supply. But there is evidence of new weapons and ammunition reaching the mountains through the only supply route, the rebel-held Wazin-Dehiba border crossing with Tunisia.

In the rebel-controlled town of Zintan, 150 km (95 miles) southwest of the Libyan capital Tripoli, journalists saw a complete, brand new mortar base plate, mortar tube and 42 mortar shells still vacuum-packed.

The set included new scopes and rucksacks to transport the equipment. The packaging had the word "Qatar," in English, stenciled onto it.

The cache included new military fatigues, radios and boxes of German-made Steiner binoculars that cost around $1,000 per pair, though some of the equipment did appear to be Libyan army issue.

At another location, new Milan anti-tank guided missiles were seen.

A senior rebel fighter in the region said the rebellion in the mountains was running low on ammunition, but that the insurgents expected more supplies to arrive "from outside".

"It's coming from Benghazi," he said. "From Benghazi through Tunisia. They're saying it's just milk and food. It's easy to bring the stuff in. This is the only way." He said some of the goods originated in France, but offered no evidence.

He said the supplies included ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and other "heavy weapons".

Qatar has been the Arab country most staunchly supportive of the Libyan rebels and the NATO-led effort to stop Gaddafi's forces from attacking civilians.

Qatar, an OPEC member in the Gulf region, has sold 1 million barrels of crude on behalf of the rebels and said in April it had shipped four tankers full of gasoline, diesel and other refined fuels to Benghazi.

Government officials in Qatar were not immediately available to comment on whether they were supplying weapons to the rebels.

A diplomatic source based in Doha said Qatari authorities had been flying a C-17 military cargo plane loaded with weapons to Benghazi "almost on a daily basis."

"We imagine this is filled with the kind of thing you're referring to (mortars). We understand they've also got some trainers floating around as well," said the source.

Tunisia, cradle of the uprisings that have swept the Arab world, has joined international sanctions against Gaddafi's administration and many ordinary people are sympathetic to the rebel cause in Libya.

Tunisia's army has reinforced the border with Libya after fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebels spilled over onto Tunisian territory.

Tunisian security officials check some vehicles entering Libya at the Dehiba-Wazin crossing, but not all of them.

Asked if weapons were reaching the rebels via Tunisia, a source in the Tunisian foreign ministry said: "We categorically deny this information."

Tunisia's role in the Libya conflict "consists solely of urgent humanitarian aid and receiving refugees and the injured", the source said.

In Libya's west, the rebels hold a chain of towns stretching more than 200 km across a bleak mountain plateau from the Tunisian border.

Pro-Gaddafi forces hold the desert plains below, and at their closest point sit level with Zintan some 10-15 km from the town centre, shelling the desert and the outskirts of Zintan.

The rebels have the advantage of holding the high ground. But their isolation could work against them in the long run since supplies of food and fuel coming through the single border crossing they hold are barely meeting demand.

The insurgents have cleared a landing strip along a stretch of the main mountaintop road they control, saying they hope NATO will give clearance for Benghazi to send food, fuel and weapons to continue the fight.