DEHIBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces are shelling homes, poisoning wells and threatening to rape women in a remote mountain region, out of sight of the outside world, said people who fled the area.
The violence in the Western Mountains region, a sparsely-populated area reached only by winding roads, has received little of the international attention given to attacks on cities on the coast such as Misrata and Ajdabiyah.
But residents who escaped the region in the past three days, loading suitcases and mattresses onto their cars and driving across the border into Tunisia, said they were subject to a campaign of terror.
They now want their story to be heard.
“The bombardment ... is targeting homes, hospitals, schools,” said Mohamed Ouan, from the town of Kalaa, who arrived at Tunisia’s Dehiba border crossing with about 500 other Libyans from the Western Mountains.
“No one is interested in this region, which is suffering in silence,” he told Reuters late on Saturday.
Another man from the same town, Hedi Ben Ayed, said: “Just imagine, there is no life left there. Gaddafi’s forces used petrol to burn the drinking water wells so we would go thirsty ... Believe me, his forces have even killed the sheep.”
“You shouldn’t ask questions about the number of dead,” he said. “The last victims were a whole family which was killed on Friday by indiscriminate bombardments.”
The Western Mountains region, which includes the towns of Nalout, Kalaa, Yafran and Zintan, is populated by Berbers, a group ethnically distinct from most Libyans and traditionally viewed with suspicion by Gaddafi.
Away from the wealth on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, they scratch out a living rearing goats and sheep on mountain scrubland. Until a generation ago, many lived in underground caves they had carved out of the rock.
When people in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi revolted against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule in February, residents in the Western Mountains region, southwest of Tripoli, joined in.
Videos posted on the Internet show crowds in Kalaa waving the green, black and red flag of the anti-Gaddafi rebels and chanting slogans in the Berber language.
Another video, from Nalout, showed people at a protest holding up a banner with the words: “The rebels of Nalout are supporting the Benghazi rebels.”
For weeks afterwards, forces loyal to Gaddafi, reeling from uprisings across the country, left the rebellion in the Western Mountains unchallenged. Now though, they are seeking to restore their control.
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians, and say they are waging a battle against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda sympathisers who, they say, are trying to destroy the country.
Aziza Belgasem, an 86-year-old woman, sits in a corner of the encampment at Dehiba where dozens of families parked their cars after arriving from Libya.
She wept as she said: “He has destroyed everything. Gaddafi is a catastrophe ... We want to go back to our homes in peace.”
Her son, Mohammed Aissa, explained why his mother was distraught. She had to leave her daughters behind because they could not find fuel for their vehicles to escape.
Many said they fled after days living in fear of abuse — including rape — at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces.
“We are here because we were threatened with death, with kidnap, and with the rape of our sisters,” said Walid Salem, who is from Kalaa. “Gaddafi’s forces have promised to rape all the girls.”
“I slept for several nights in an underground cave out of fear, not of being killed but of being kidnapped.”
Said Amrawi said it was the threat of rape which made him flee his home in Nalout. “To be frank, there is no shelling in Nalout, but I am afraid that my wife and daughters will be raped,” he said.
“I wanted to bring them to a safe place ... As for me, I want to go back to Nalout.”
One man, from the town of Yafran, appealed for foreign help. “We do not want direct NATO intervention but it is necessary, otherwise there will be no one left in Yafran,” he said.
Even in exile, the spirit of the rebellion in the Western Mountains lives on. A group of children played in the encampment, among them a 9-year-old boy.
Holding a plastic gun in his hands, he repeated the words: “I want to kill you, Gaddafi.”