Tunis was now favourably disposed to talks with Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC). - Reuters (File Photo)

TUNIS: Tunisia toughened its line against the Tripoli government, declaring itself ready to recognise the rebel administration, as residents near the border reported more Libyan shells landing there Tuesday.

There were fresh reports meanwhile of Qadhafi's soldiers deserting his cause and crossing into Tunisia to escape the conflict.

“It is unthinkable to accept that a government massively bombards entire cities,” the Tunisia's cabinet spokesman Education Minister Taieb Baccouche told AFP.

“Whoever does this loses all legitimacy,” he added, referring to the offensive by Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi on rebel-held cities.

Tunis was now favourably disposed to talks with Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC).

“If negotiations take place between the government and the NTC, Tunisia is predisposed to recognise the council,” he said, though he added that there had been “no explicit request for recognition” so far.

Already late Monday, interim Prime Minister Caid Essebsi told Al-Jazeera Television: “We will recognise (the CNT) when they ask us.” In the beginning Tunisia observed strict neutrality because of neighbourly ties and the growing number of refugees arriving in Tunisia,” Baccouche said.

But Qadhafi had “done everything to express his unhappiness and rejection of the Tunisian revolution,” he added.

“He took it upon himself to interfere in Tunisian affairs in calling for Tunisians to keep (ousted strongman Zine el Abidine) Ben Ali,” he said.

“The Tunisian government and people took a very poor view of that.” Baccouche said there had already been several incidents in which Tunisian territory had been shelled, “which is unacceptable”.

The minister's comments came as witnesses told AFP of shells and rockets fired in battle-torn Libya landing on Tunisian territory, with one report of a large Tunisian military presence on the frontier.

One resident told AFP he had counted 10 shells that landed, some of them north of the city of Oued Erouth in a district to the west of Dehiba, about 1.5 kilometres from the border.

“We had a sleepless night, there was heavy fire on the Libyan side, but it was only today that the shells began to fall on Tunisian territory,” he said, speaking by phone.

He also described a massive Tunisian army presence at the border, with F5 fighter planes and helicopters regularly flying over the area.

“The fighting is coming closer and closer, preventing us from sleeping and leading a normal life. A shell could stray at any moment and land on our heads,” said the civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous.

Red Cross official Nasser Ben Abdallah said the first shell had landed at 7:30 am (0630 GMT) and firing had continued until 1:00 pm.

But police and the national guard in Dehiba insisted that no shells had landed across the border on either Monday evening or Tuesday.

In Tunis, defence ministry official Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr would not confirm the local reports.

But he did say about 30 Libyans wounded in the fighting had been taken to Tunisia on Monday for treatment following clashes between rebel and loyalist fighters.

A group of loyalist soldiers had also abandonded Qadhafi, crossing over into Tunisia, he added. Although he gave no further details, other sources suggested that they had included a senior officer.

Ben Nasr said that in the 24 hours up until Tuesday morning, 7,830 refugees had crossed into Tunisia, of whom 6,330 were Libyans.

Last month, after more than 20 shells fired during combat between rebels and pro-Qadhafi troops fell in the Dehiba area, Tunisia's interim administration threatened to take the issue to the United Nations.

The Dehiba border post is one of the main passage points for Libyan refugees.

The focus of fierce fighting since the end of April, Qadhafi's soldiers had recaptured it from rebels before again losing it to the insurgents.


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