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Rebels: Gadhafi fighters shell western mountains

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 18 2011 8:20 p.m. MDT

Rebel fighter Yamen Saad, 28, on security duty at the last checkpoint which allows the presence of reporters before the front line with Moammar Gadhafi troops in Ajdabiya, Libya, Tuesday, May 17, 2011.

Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces intensified their campaign to take strategic heights in a western mountain range and targeted a road that many people have used to flee the fighting in Libya, forcing the temporary closure of a border crossing to Tunisia.

In the main square of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, several hundred residents celebrated what they said was a nearing to the end of the rebel insurgency early Thursday, spraying the sky with gunfire and banging fireworks and waving green flags — the iconic Gadhafi regime color.

They claimed that residents of rebel-held Benghazi were holding pro-Gadhafi demonstrations, though there was no proof of any such demonstrations.

Much of the fighting in the western mountain range centered around the town of Yafrin, and residents and rebel fighters said Wednesday that Gadhafi forces were using Grad missiles and rockets in their nearly monthlong siege. Residents, trapped in their homes, were cut off from food and medical supplies, they said.

In nearby Zintan, however, rebels repelled an advance by Gadhafi's forces, killing eight and taking one prisoner, a local activist said.

To the west of the contested Nafusa mountain range, which is home to ethnic Berbers, Libyan shelling forced the closure late Tuesday of the so-called Wazen passage, which is a route people fleeing Libya have used to get to neighboring Tunisia. Jaber Naluti, a volunteer who has been trying to assist people in the area, said seven rebels were killed.

Reports from the area said that some of the shells fell inside Tunisia.

Tunisian jet fighters flew over the area but didn't fire, witnesses said. They said the passage was reopened on Wednesday.

Although Gadhafi's forces control most of the west, rebels have linked up with the minority Berbers to keep his forces out of the highest points of the Nafusa mountains, denying them a military advantage.

Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been using his military and militias to try to put down an uprising that began in February to try to remove him from power.

Rebel forces has taken control of much of eastern Libya, operating out of headquarters in the coastal city of Benghazi. They also have been fighting to keep the town of Misrata, the opposition's only major stronghold in western Libya.

BelJassem, a citizen-turned-fighter from a Berber village near Yafrin, which is 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, said Gadhafi forces were shelling the town repeatedly.

"We dig trenches and hide in there at night," says BelJassem, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.

In Zintan, 20 miles (32 kilometers) east, rebels set an ambush for Gadhafi forces seeking to enter the city from the east, local activist Hamed Enbayah said. Rebel fighters killed eight soldiers and captured one.

Later, Enbayah said he saw large explosions he assumed were NATO airstrikes on an ammunition depot south of the city. It was unclear if government forces in the area were also targeted.

On the eastern front, rebels engaged in an hours-long firefight with Gadhafi loyalists, said Dr. Suleiman Refadi, who works at the Ajdabiya Hospital.

He told The Associated Press that the rebels killed 14 of Gadhafi's fighters and captured 30 near the oil town of Brega, which is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Ajdabiya. Refadi said he treated five wounded rebels.

Refadi said the rebels were helped by NATO airstrikes, which destroyed eight vehicles carrying heavy artillery.

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