A small border crossing on the mountainous western edge of Libya, where rebels are celebrating their first big victory in weeks, may serve as a proving ground for a new alliance between rebellious Arabs and persecuted Berber tribes.
About a dozen military officers loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi ran away from the Wazin outpost on Thursday, according to Tunisia's state news agency, and surrendered to their counterparts across the border. Rebels reportedly flew their flag at the crossing, about 200 kilometres inland from the sea, marking the first time in more than a month of bitter warfare that rebels have captured a government base in western Libya.
It's a minor gain for the rebellion, and could soon be reversed, but for the wider community of Berber expatriates it provided a moment of satisfaction after decades of watching their ethnic group suffer under Col. Gadhafi.
"They've been very much repressed, their culture and their language," said Aomar Benslimane, a former president of the Amazigh Cultural Association in America. "Now you are seeing the reaction."
Harnessing the anger of the Berbers (also known as Amazigh) has been a key part of the rebel strategy, but not without significant challenges. The Berbers pride themselves as being the indigenous residents of North Africa, noted in Roman histories several centuries before Arabs dominated the region. Their language, alphabet and customs make them different from their fellow rebels in eastern Libya. Communications with the main group of rebels, headquartered in Benghazi, has also been hampered by the collapse of local cellphone networks and the Libyan military efforts to isolate Berber strongholds in the Nafusa Mountains.
The United Nations refugee agency said last week that 500 ethnic Berbers had escaped into Tunisia, and reported their stories of government attacks, lack of medicine and food shortages in their besieged towns.
The ferocity of Col. Gadhafi's forces in the western mountains has prompted some observers to suggest that the regime is using the rebellion as a pretext to wipe out the Berbers, whose population in Libya is estimated at 25,000 to 150,000. Their exact numbers remain unknown, partly because the Libyan government has recently denied their existence.
A U.S. embassy cable from 2008, published by WikiLeaks, reported that Col. Gadhafi privately warned leaders of the Berber community: "You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes - Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever - but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes."
Col. Gadhafi views ethnic divisions within the country as security threats, the cable says. Berbers say that local officials banned the use of their traditional names and forbade education in their native language. Amnesty International has reported that two Berber men were arrested and tortured in December, "solely for their interest in Amazigh culture."
By contrast, the rebels have taken pains to embrace the Berbers. A new publication launched this week was touted as Libya's first bilingual newspaper, in Berber and Arabic. The masthead features the rebel colours and the Imazighen flag, a symbol of the Berber identity; underneath, a colourful cartoon depicts Col. Gadhafi crawling out on a tree limb that cracks under his weight.
"We have a Berber population in Libya that taught him a lesson or two," a rebel activist posted on Twitter on Wednesday.
Berbers also have significant populations in Morocco and Algeria, two countries whose leaders have so far avoided the serious uprisings in the region. Both regimes have been more accommodating of Berber culture than Col. Gadhafi, Mr. Benslimane said, which may discourage unrest.
"Gadhafi made many mistakes," he said. "You don't shoot your own people. You lose all your legitimacy."
Follow us on Twitter: