TUNISIAN-LIBYAN BORDER // Flag-waving supporters of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi paid a surprise visit to the Tunisian border yesterday to tell fleeing refugees and Tunisian soldiers that his rule was intact despite a continuing revolt.
Several men, in the back of a blue Toyota pick-up, swung through the Libyan border post and pulled up beside the Tunisian gate. "Everything that media are reporting about trouble in Libya is false," said one of the men, Mosbah Zemzel, 28, tossing juice boxes and chocolate biscuits over the fence to a crowd of refugees, in sight of gathered journalists. "The leader is in charge and there are no problems."
Mr Zemzel and his companions, who described themselves simply as Libyan citizens, were accompanied by several other men in separate cars who chatted with media gathered in this no-man's land but did not clearly identify themselves.
Nearby, refugees were picking their way toward Tunisia through a wasteland of discarded luggage and clothing. Tunisian authorities say that at least 75,000 people have fled into the country from Libya, turning the border post of Ras Ajdir into a human traffic jam.
On Tuesday, refugees pressed into the several hundred yards of open ground between the borders scuffled with Tunisian guards, who fired warning shots in the air and struggled to push back people trying to scale the cement border wall.
Yesterday, the area was empty of people. While it was not clear how many refugees entered Tunisia yesterday, they did so in orderly fashion, queuing first to have passports stamped and second for a tuna sandwich from charity workers inside the border.
Several kilometres inside Tunisia, yellow buses were pulling away from a tent camp run by the Red Crescent, the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Tunisian army, where more than 18,000 thousand refugees were hunkered down to await repatriation.
Other refugees are housed in schools and other public buildings in the region, said Benoit Carpentier, communication coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
However, transportation home for refugees is still lacking, Mr Carpentier said. "There are more people than there are solutions. And we don't know how many people are still waiting on the Libyan side," he said.
One stranded refugee in a bind was Delouar Hussain, 29, a Bangladeshi construction company foreman who entered Tunisia yesterday after waiting for three days on the Libyan side of the border, who said he was uncertain of how he would get home.
"And on the way here, soldiers and police at checkpoints took my phone memory card, my phone, my money - everything," said Mr Hussain, echoing a common complaint among refugees at Ras Ajdir.
Most refugees are foreign workers in Libya who are fleeing violence as anti-government protests have accelerated into armed revolt against Colonel Qaddafi. Security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters in several cities, according to witnesses cited by news media.
"I couldn't even go outside my house to buy food because the shops were mostly closed, and I might have been killed in the fighting," Mr Hussain said. "I only left Bangladesh to work and send money to my family."
Colonel Qaddafi has denied that his regime has used violence to quell protests and blames unrest on al Qa'eda and foreign meddling in Libya.
A speech by his son, Saif al Islam Qaddafi, on February 20 telling Libyans to beware of foreigners appears to have helped trigger a mass exodus of foreign workers from the country. At least 140,000 people have fled so far into Tunisia and Egypt.
Colonel Qaddafi has lost control of eastern Libya but appears well entrenched in Tripoli, where he enjoys a degree of popular support.
Yesterday, the leader's forces attacked the coastal city of Brega, held by rebels who have begun to organise an opposition government in the city of Benghazi, Libya's main commercial centre after the capitol, Tripoli.