Italy 'offers to arm rebels' as Gaddafi forces destroy oil tanks

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Anti-Gaddafi rebels say Italy has offered to arm them with "whatever they need to liberate Libya". A rebel spokesman in the eastern city of Benghazi, declined to specify what kind of weapons would be provided, and last night the Italian foreign ministry denied the claim.

The confusing reports came after Libyan government forces attacked a Misrata oil depot, causing a huge fire. Fuel tanks were still engulfed in flames hours after the early morning attack. The depot contains vital stores of fuel for cars, trucks, ships and generators powering hospitals and other key sites.

Rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan said: "Four fuel tanks were totally destroyed and a huge fire erupted which spread to the other four. We cannot extinguish it because we do not have the right tools. Now the city will face a major problem. Those were the only sources of fuel for the city. These tanks could have kept the city for three months with enough fuel."

Mr Hassan said government forces used small planes normally used to spray pesticides for the overnight attack in the Qasr Ahmed neighbourhood. He later told Al-Jazeera television that three helicopters bearing Red Crescent insignia conducted the attack.

Another rebel spokesman, who gave his name as Abdelsalam, said a government helicopter conducted a reconnaissance mission over the port and two hours later at around midnight local time government forces fired rockets that hit three fuel tanks belonging to the Brega Oil Company.

Footage of the incident posted on YouTube by Libyan students in Misrata showed firefighters turning water hoses on a raging fire in a vain attempt to extinguish it.

Rebels notified Nato about the planes before the attack but there was no response, Mr Hassan said. Government forces flew at least one helicopter reconnaissance mission over Misrata last month, according to rebels. The loss of the oil is likely to be a significant development in the battle for control of Misrata, the only city in western Libya still in rebel hands.

There was also intense fighting along Libya's frontier with Tunisia yesterday, where the war again spilled over into Tunisian territory. Schools in the Tunisian border town of Dehiba were evacuated, and residents began to flee after pro-Gaddafi forces fired artillery shells into the area.

The violence follows an attack last week which resulted in growing tension between Libya and the new Tunisian government. Yesterday, 13 shells landed on the Tunisian side of the border. Libya's western mountain region, which borders Tunisia, has become a focus for the fighting, as other fronts in the civil war have stalled.