TRIPOLI, Libya >> Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi shelled villages and towns to try to take control of the high ground in a western mountain range as NATO widened its campaign of bombings and leafletting to persuade government troops to stop fighting.
Libyan rebels said on Wednesday that Gadhafi’s forces were shelling communities in the western mountains. BelJassem, a citizen-turned-fighter from a village near Yafrin, said Gadhafi forces were using Grad missiles and rocket launchers in their nearly monthlong siege, leaving residents trapped and cut off from food and medical supplies.
“We dig trenches and hide in there at night,” says BelJassem, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
Yafrin, which is 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, is one of the biggest cities in the Nafusa mountain range, home to the ethnic Berber minority.
Medghamas Abu-Zakhar, a rebel based in Yafrin, said Gadhafi forces were shelling villages toward the top of the Nafusa range in an attempt to capture the high ground.
Yafrin is home to some 250,000 Berbers, said Fathi Abu-Zakhar, who is among the city’s residents who fled the fighting. He said that two of his sons stayed behind.
“They are living under siege,” he said in a telephone interview. “No food and no medicine can get in. Even the injured have no way to get treatment since the only hospital has been shut down.”
Farther to the West, Libyan shelling forced the closure late Tuesday of the so-called Wazen passage, which is the route people fleeing Libya use to get to neighboring Tunisia.
Jaber Naluti, a volunteer who has been trying to assist people in the area, said Gadhafi forces shelled the route, killing seven Libyan rebels. Some of the shells fell on the Tunisian side of the border.
Naluti said the shelling forced Tunisian authorities to close the passage. Tunisian jet fighters flew over the area but didn’t fire. The passage appeared to be functioning normally on Wednesday.
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. The protests are aimed at ousting him from power.
The reports from Yafrin came a day after NATO said it would step up psychological warfare operations to try to persuade troops loyal to Gadhafi to abandon the fight.
Wing Cmdr. Mike Bracken, speaking in Naples, Italy, said NATO planes have been dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages to Libyan forces urging them “to return to their barracks and homes.”
Bracken said the messages also have advised pro-regime troops “to move away from any military equipment” that could be targeted by NATO’s strike aircraft.
He did not provide further details on the psychological operations. But the U.S. has been using a specially modified Air Force C-130 transport to broadcast messages to Libyan forces in AM, FM, high-frequency radio, TV and military communications bands.
NATO is operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate to maintain a no-fly zone and to take other actions to protect civilians from attack by Gadhafi’s forces. In recent days, NATO attacks have concentrated on military and logistics hubs in Tripoli.
There was no formal reaction from the government to reports that Shukri Ghanem, the Libyan oil minister and head of the National Oil Co., defected earlier this week and left the country for Tunis. The defection was confirmed by Abdel Moneim al-Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.
Others who have defected include Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, one of Gadhafi’s earliest supporters; Interior Minister Abdel-Fatah Younes; Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former U.N. General Assembly president. A number of ambassadors and other diplomats also have resigned.
The defections suggest Gadhafi’s political structure is fraying, but it’s unclear whether there is enough internal strife to seriously undermine his ability to fight rebel forces as NATO airstrikes pound Libyan military targets. Gadhafi appears to retain the backing of his core of military commanders.
Still, support for Gadhafi seems to be waning in the capital, Tripoli. Pro-regime demonstrations are sparsely attended, even when heavily advertised in advance.
And rebel forces have reported some gains in recent days. In Misrata, the main battleground in western Libya, opposition fighters claim they have driven back government troops from key access points and tried to push pro-Gadhafi gunners out of rocket range for the city.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday that fighting in Misrata and other cities is denying medical aid to civilians and causing casualties among health personnel. It cited reports by the Libyan Red Crescent that three of its ambulances were hit over the past four days. A nurse was killed and a patient and three volunteers were wounded, it said.
Also Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency said Libyan authorities appeared to be encouraging African migrants to board unseaworthy boats bound for Europe.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva that the Libyan conflict has opened up a route for migrants that was closed for two years because of an agreement between Libya and Italy.
Already some 14,000 people — mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — have used Libya as a springboard to reach Europe, and thousands more are poised to make the treacherous sea journey in the coming weeks as weather conditions in the Mediterranean improve.
“The authorities (in Libya) are not discouraging, at all, in fact there may be signs that they are encouraging these boat journeys,” she said.
Some are migrants fleeing the fighting in Libya, but others appear to be crossing into Libya from elsewhere in Africa because it is easier to get onto smugglers’ boats there.
Associated Press reporters Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt, and Michelle Faul from Benghazi, Libya.