Libya's civil war spilled into southern Tunisia on Friday, as scores of troops loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi burst across the border and into a nearby town. The foray came after loyalists failed to recapture a remote border post that has become a rebel lifeline.
Two Libyan government rockets landed in the Tunisian town of Dehiba and angry residents attacked one of the Libyan military vehicles with stones, causing it and its antiaircraft gun to overturn, killing the driver.
The presence of armed forces blasting their weapons inside a neighboring country would have been an international incident anywhere else. But the ebb and flow of this conflict – and the porous desert border between Libya and Tunisia – meant that Tunisian officials could do little to stop the incursion. The Tunisia military and border police pulled back entirely from their border positions during the heaviest fighting late Thursday.
The rebel flag was raised again at this post on Friday morning, the final result of a three-pronged attack by Colonel Qaddafi's forces that began Thursday afternoon. The battle initially brought victory to loyalists – and a raising of their green flag for the first time since rebels seized control here one week ago.
Battle on the border
But a fierce battle that stretched into the night saw loyalist troops surrounded and finally forced to flee, with 162 entering Tunisia with 18 vehicles.
The Tunisian military disarmed the Libyans, but then escorted them back to an illegal crossing point frequented by smugglers. The loyalists were given back their arms and expected to resume their fight.
"Dehiba is very important for the [anti-Qaddafi] revolutionaries for resupply – they are battling for that corner," says Samir Abdelmounem, a Tunisian doctor who treated wounded rebels and Qaddafi loyalists alike in the Dehiba hospital.
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"And this population feels great solidarity with [the rebels], like they are family," says Dr. Abdelmounem. The Tunisians "detest Qaddafi's soldiers, they have a horror of them."
Tunisian soldiers were posted in front of the hospital, he said, because "people wanted to come here and finish them off."
Two houses in Dehiba, a couple miles back from the border, were hit with Libyan rockets. Stray bullets struck one Libyan refugee boy in the foot and wounded a Tunisian man.
Rebels said they were surprised at the attack by Qaddafi forces and said they had hired local guides in the difficult desert mountain terrain, and to provide details of rebel strength and location.
"Even the Nalutis [locals from the nearest Libyan town of Nalut] were astonished: How did they come from that way?" says a rebel named Wajdi who works on the Tunisian side of the border.
"The rebels learned something because of that; we will never leave this area weak again," says Wajdi. Neither will they depend on NATO for help: Wajdi was in direct contact with NATO during the fighting, providing real-time details of possible targets.
"I was talking to them live ... and nothing," says Wajdi. "Unfortunately we supply them information but we keep waiting a long time for a reaction."
As he spoke, a column of black smoke rose from the Libyan side of the border, where rebels burned the clothes and personal effects of the fleeing Qaddafi loyalists. One dead loyalist had had his toes tied together, apparently to prevent him running away before he died.
For two and a half months, rebels in Libya's remote western mountains, which are dominated by ethnic Berbers who have always challenged Qaddafi's rule, have taken up arms to join the antigovernment revolution.
Crucial crossing for rebels
This border crossing has played a significant role. Rebel capture of it a week ago was a blow to Tripoli and enabled rebels to boost their long-hobbled supply chain, leading to an upswing in fighting.
Tunisian national guardsmen said they believed some of the Qaddafi loyalists who crossed Friday were intent on attacking a camp of Libyan refugees on the edge of Dehiba.
That failed, but there was drama in the Dehiba hospital, where the 12 injured Qaddafi soldiers were taken, along with three injured rebels. Doctors were struck by the fact the loyalist troops appeared so young, and that two were so traumatized that they tried to run away upon arrival, and had to be caught by Tunisian soldiers.
Hospital staff immediately separated the rebels and loyalists into two different wings of the building. Explained Abdelmounem: "It's so we don't have any more problems than we already have."