Libyan Rebels, Loyalists Clash In Tunisia Border Town

Jun 24, 2011

Until several months ago, the Tunisian town of Djerba was a placid, sun-bleached stretch of the Mediterranean coast with white-washed hotels that catered mainly to vacationers from Europe.

But the Tunisian revolution that began last December scared away the foreign tourists. And now the fighting in Libya is spilling over the border and turning the town into a place of intrigue.

The Libyans coming to Djerba in growing numbers include ordinary civilians fleeing the turmoil in their homeland. Libyan rebels have also come here, hoping to find a safe haven as they pursue their uprising against Libyan leader Mommar Gadhafi. But the rebels say that Gadhafi's agents have followed them to the Tunisian town, and are attacking them.

When traveling from the Libyan border, Djerba is the first sizable town along Tunisia's coast, only about two hours away by car.

On a dirt road on the outskirts of town, five young men gathered in a room on the unfinished top floor of a non-descript house. The room was nearly bare except for some foam mattresses, a television set and a shelf draped with the Libyan rebel flag.

One rebel, a 21-year-old who calls himself Sanaad Libya, tapped at a laptop computer. The rebels here maintain a Web site and issue a printed newsletter. He said the young men have come from the fighting in Libya's western Nafusa Mountains.

They are in Djerba to rest, recruit and organize among the refugees. But, they say, they can't always tell whether the people they meet are with them or against them.

"My friend is a rebel, but actually he is a spy," says a 23-year-old former engineering student who identifies himself only as "Axel." "We cannot trust."

Earlier this week, there was an attack against the office of a Libyan refugee aid group, the Libyan Freedom Headquarters. The group is associated with the rebel side. That office is now closed, and its leaders were gathered on the balcony of a posh cafe that overlooks the sea.

Like the student rebels, they asked that their names not be broadcast because they fear retaliation against their families in Libya.

One man, Fouad, identifies himself as the president of the group, which he says provides only humanitarian assistance for Libyan refugees, not military support. But he said all different types are showing up, including a group that arrived about a week ago.

"They ask for money, they ask for food — the people [are] for Gadhafi, you can see it," he said.

Fouad said they raised suspicion because they didn't seem like refugees. Fouad suspected they were just scouting the office, preparing for an attack – and one came just a few days later.

The assistant manager of the office, his injured hand now wrapped in gauze, said the office was nearly empty when dozens of men showed up wielding knives, stones and clubs. The assistant said his hand was cut as he tried to fend off the attackers with a chair.

An older man, Abdul-Raazik, said his son was stabbed repeatedly. The son raised his shirt to show several bandaged wounds in his chest, belly and side. The men said the Tunisian police eventually came and broke up the fracas.

For now, the Libyan Freedom Headquarters is closed, but the men say they plan to find a new location and keep up the effort. Abdul-Raazik says Gadhafi won't make it easy.

"Spies are everywhere in Djerba," he said. "The Tunisian government now is very, very, very weak, and they don't want to close the borders."

The Libyan men don't want to see the borders closed, either, but as long as Libyans can cross into Tunisia, they are likely to bring their conflict with them.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.