CAIRO — The government of Moammar Gadhafi suffered setbacks on multiple fronts Thursday as rebels in the western mountains seized a Tunisian border crossing, fighters in the besieged city of Misrata said they were gaining ground and President Barack Obama authorized the use of armed drones for close-in fighting against the Gadhafi forces.
The rebels in the Western mountains took control of a border crossing in the town of Wazen after an early-morning battle that sent a small number of Libyan soldiers fleeing across the frontier, the official Tunisian news agency reported.
The news agency said 13 Libyan soldiers, including a colonel and two commanders, had been detained, while a rebel spokesman in the eastern city of Benghazi asserted that more than 100 had sought asylum.
As the fighting in the mountains has escalated over the past two weeks, U.N. aid workers say that more than 14,000 Libyan refugees — many of them members of the Berber minority, which is prevalent in the area — have fled across the same border, with as many as 6,000 a day crossing recently, a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commission said.
While it is unclear whether the rebels can hold Wazen, their success is the first major crack in Gadhafi’s control of the western region since he crushed the uprisings that broke out in Tripoli and many other places across Libya when the insurrection erupted two months ago. It opens the possibility of the rebels there importing aid or weapons and provided the first hint of a break in the stalemate that has settled over the Libyan civil war in recent weeks.
In a move that seemed to be aimed at ending that deadlock, the Pentagon said Thursday that Obama had authorized the use of armed Predator drones against Gadhafi’s forces, which have partially evaded the airstrikes by intermingling with civilian populations and operating out of unmarked vehicles.
The U.S. military has used the Predator, a remotely piloted aircraft outfitted with Hellfire missiles, to hit targets in urban and rural areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.
In announcing the deployment, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the addition of armed Predators as “a modest contribution” to the NATO attack mission. But Obama’s approval of their deployment seemed to be another sign of gaps in NATO’s ability to carry out a complicated, extended combat missions without continued and significant U.S. support.
Those gaps have become more apparent since the United States transferred command of the Libya mission to NATO on April 4, when the U.S. military stepped back to a supporting role. Despite that move, U.S. planes have dropped significant numbers of bombs, more than any of the other countries in the alliance.