Cairo – The government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi suffered setbacks on multiple fronts on Thursday as rebels in the western mountains seized a Tunisian border crossing, fighters in the besieged city of Misurata said they were gaining ground and President Obama authorized the use of armed drones for close-in fighting against the Qaddafi forces.
The rebels in the Western mountains took control of a border crossing in the town of Wazen after an early morning battle that sent a small number of Libyan soldiers fleeing across the frontier, the official Tunisian news agency reported. The news agency said 13 of the Libyan soldiers, including a colonel and two commanders, had been detained, while a rebel spokesman in the eastern city of Benghazi asserted that more than 100 had sought asylum.
As the fighting in the mountains has escalated over the last two weeks, United Nations aid workers say that more than 14,000 Libyan refugees — many of them members of the Berber minority, which is prevalent in the area — have fled across the same border, with as many as 6,000 a day crossing recently, a spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Commission said.
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While it is unclear that the rebels can hold Wazen, their success is the first major crack in Colonel Qaddafi’s control of the western region since he crushed the uprisings that broke out in Tripoli and many other cities and towns across Libya when the insurrection erupted two months ago. It opens the possibility of the rebels there importing aid or weapons and provides the first hint of a break in the stalemate that has settled over the Libyan civil war in recent weeks.
In a move that seemed to be aimed at ending that deadlock, the Pentagon said Thursday that President Obama had authorized the use of armed Predator drones against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, which have partly evaded the airstrikes by intermingling with civilian populations and operating out of unmarked vehicles.
The American military has used the Predator, a remotely piloted aircraft outfitted with Hellfire missiles, to hit targets in urban and rural areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.
In announcing the deployment, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the addition of armed Predators as “a modest contribution” to the NATO attack mission. But Mr. Obama’s approval of their deployment seemed to be another sign of gaps in NATO’s ability to carry out complicated, extended combat missions without continued and significant American support.
Those gaps have become more apparent since the United States transferred command of the Libya mission to NATO on April 4, when the American military stepped back to a supporting role. Despite that move, American planes have dropped significant numbers of bombs, more than any of the other countries in the alliance.
In Misurata, the rebel-held port city where rebels have pleaded for weeks for such weaponry to beat back a siege by Qaddafi forces, a rebel spokesman said Thursday that recent airstrikes and aid shipments had enabled rebel fighters to take the offensive. The spokesman, Mohamed, whose full name was withheld for the protection of his family, said the rebels killed more than 100 Qaddafi soldiers on Thursday and 51 on Wednesday, when they also captured 40 others. “People are celebrating in Misurata,” he said, speaking over an Internet connection because most telephone service and electricity to the city was cut off.
Among other advances, he said the rebels had driven away snipers who had terrorized civilians along the city’s central Tripoli Avenue. “There is a pattern of collapse among the Qaddafi troops in and around Misurata,” he said.
In the rebels’ eastern stronghold of Benghazi, Col. Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the rebel military, said anti-Qaddafi fighters had attacked the western border crossing at Wazen repeatedly in the past before succeeding on Thursday. “This is a supply line linking us to Tunisia,” he said, adding that the rebel forces in Wazen were communicating with the leadership in Benghazi.
So far, NATO airstrikes against the Qaddafi forces have enabled the rebels to retain control of Benghazi and a handful of eastern towns, the western commercial port of Misurata and, according to some reports, the western mountain towns of Nalut and Zintan. But the Qaddafi forces have maintained tight control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and kept up a fierce siege on Misurata and the other rebel-held towns, and rebel leaders have complained bitterly about the relative paucity of NATO airstrikes in recent weeks.
While most attention has focused on the major port cities of Benghazi and Misurata, the mountainous western region stretching from Wazen to nearby Nalut and Zintan has simmered with opposition to Qaddafi. The Berbers there have long chafed under the Qaddafi government, which has sought to deny their status as a culturally distinct minority.
After rebels took control of Benghazi on Feb. 20, residents of Nalut and Zintan joined others from Tripoli, Misurata, Zawiyah, Zawarah, Sabratha and other towns in taking to the streets to burn police stations and the headquarters of Colonel Qaddafi’s local “revolutionary committees.” In the following weeks, however, his security forces re-established a firm grip on Tripoli and gradually recaptured most of the other towns as well, leaving Zintan and Misurata as the main western centers of resistance.
Faras Kaya, a spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Commission, said many fleeing to the camps described escalating clashes in the mountains around Zintan and Nalut over the last two weeks, as Qaddafi forces fired artillery toward the towns and the rebels lashed back. “The western mountain region has been under siege for a month or so,” Mr. Kaya said. “What is clear is that they have fled because of the intensifying violence.”
About a quarter of a million refugees have fled Libya into Tunisia over the last two months, he said. At the other main crossing near the Mediterranean, most of those fleeing were foreign workers, he said, but the 14,000 who have fled through Wazen have been Libyan families.
The deployment of the Predators follows weeks when rebels have complained of a lack of support from NATO after the United States handed over direction of the air campaign to NATO. In announcing the addition of the new weapon, Mr. Gates suggested that the United States was filling in a gap in the other arsenals of the other allies, who do not have similar attack drones.
“The president has said that where we have some unique capabilities, he is willing to use those,” Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon news conference, suggesting the Predators would provide “some precision capability.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Thom Shanker from Washington. Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya, and Mona El Naggar from Cairo.
This story “Libyan Rebels Advance; US Will Deploy Drones” first appeared in The New York Times.