Libyan rebels seized control of a key border crossing into Tunisia, a spokesman for an opposition group said Thursday.
The crossing in Wazen, Libya, could prove key to access to the city of Nalut, under siege by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces for the past month. Thousands have fled the fighting through Wazen to the nearby Tunisian town of Dehiba, where temporary camps have been set up for the displaced.
The Tunisian state-run news agency, TAP, also reported the rebel takeover of Wazen after early morning fighting.
About 100 forces loyal to Gadhafi, including a high-ranking officer, fled across the border into Tunisia, said Mohammed Ali Abdallah, spokesman for National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He said the rebels detained 14 members of Gadhafi’s forces.
TAP reported that 13 Libyan officers have been detained by Tunisian military authorities.
Also Thursday, a third ship chartered by the International Organization for Migration was making its way back from the besieged city of Misrata to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east
More than 1,000 rescued migrants were on board as were the bodies of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, killed in Misrata on Wednesday, the organization said. The ship was also repatriating the body of an Ukranian doctor.
“As fighting in Misrata intensifies, more and more civilians are desperately trying to leave the city,” the migration agency said in a statement. “Among the Libyans onboard the Ionian Spirit are some 100 Libyans who were rescued from an overloaded tugboat that was trying to make its way out of the harbor.”
The reported rebel takeover Thursday of Wazen comes at a time when many are questioning whether a military victory over Gadhafi is possible. France and Italy announced Wednesday that they will send military officers to Libya to advise the rebels.
Following a similar announcement by the British government Tuesday, French government spokesman Francois Baroin said a “small number” of French troops was being sent to advise the rebels’ Transitional National Council.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet has ruled out sending ground troops to fight alongside the rebels. “This is a real issue that deserves an international debate,” he said, adding, “We are working within the framework of the 1973 resolution,” a reference to the U.N. resolution that authorized action in Libya. “You cannot please everyone all the time,” he said.
Italy will send military advisers to train the rebels in self-defense tactics, Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari announced.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said U.S. President Barack Obama was pleased with the coalition decisions.
“The president, obviously, was aware of this decision and supports it, and hopes that — believes it will help the opposition,” said Carney. “But it does not at all change the president’s policy on no boots on the ground for American troops.”
Britain said its contingent of military officers will be sent to Benghazi to serve in an advisory role. The team will work with the Transitional National Council to help the opposition improve its military organizational structures, communications and logistics, the British Foreign Office said. It will also help deliver aid.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday she has recommended that Obama authorize the U.S. government to send up to $25 million in non-lethal commodities and services to support Libyan rebels, including the Transitional National Council.
She defended the work of the opposition.
“It was not a group that had been planning to oppose the rule of Gadhafi for years; it was a spontaneous response within the context of the broader Arab Spring,” she said. “These are mostly business people, students, lawyers, doctors, professors who have very bravely moved to defend their communities and to call to an end to the regime in Libya.”
In Libya, rebel spokesman Jalal al Gallal called Wednesday’s announcements by France and Italy “positive.”
“We are pleased with the results, and I think it’s a prelude to more cooperation,” he said. “The more advisers we have on the ground, the better coordination we’ll have on the battlefield.”
At least 27 people have been killed and 142 have been injured in Libya this week, according to an opposition spokesman who wanted to be identified only as Mohammed for safety reasons. Among them were the two acclaimed photojournalists.
Hetherington , who was nominated for an Oscar for a gritty and harrowing documentary about the Afghan war, and Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros both died Wednesday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Misrata. CNN