Western Journalists Cross Into Libya

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is one of the first Western reporters to reach eastern Libya, now largely in the hands of anti-Gadhafi protesters. She speaks to host Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're getting a better picture of the situation in parts of Libya today and it is one of disarray. Much of eastern Libya is in the hands of anti-government protesters. And in the capital, Tripoli, the besieged leader, Moammar Gadhafi, gave an impassioned speech in which he declared he will stay or die in power. Here he is through an interpreter over Al-Jazeera's English language news channel.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. MOAMMAR GADHAFI (Leader, Libya): (Through translator) I will not leave the country and I will die - and I'll die as martyr at the end.

NORRIS: Gadhafi denounced Libyan protesters as greasy rats and he said they were under the influence of hallucinatory drugs. Meantime, substantial parts of eastern Libya are in the hands of protesters.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro crossed into Libya from Egypt earlier today. She's among the first Western journalist to enter the country since the uprising began. And she joins us. Lourdes, could you describe what you've been able to see so far?

LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO: The minute, Michele, we drove across the border, we were greeted by celebrating Libyans who had basically taken over the border area. They were showing the victory sign and - in a very ebullient mood and were very excited to see Western journalists. Everyone was armed and that was pretty much what we saw the whole way in, either disaffected army and police or pro-democracy rebels manning checkpoints and keeping things together.

We stopped at a looted and abandoned army base. In effect, the apparatus of the state here has completely disappeared. The buildings, they were burned, the armory had been looted. Pro-democracy forces tell me they are now heavily armed from the weaponry that they've managed to get from these armories. One man recounted how in his town of Beida, they now have anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weaponry at their disposal.

NORRIS: Is there still fighting in that area?

NAVARRO: Well, I have to tell you that most of the area that I've been through has felt very calm. We did hear, though, an extraordinary story from an eyewitness to events in Beida. That's a town about halfway to Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya. A group of pro-Gadhafi forces were holed up at the airport. They contained, apparently, African mercenaries and elite troops. And there had been a standoff there for several days.

And, yesterday, the townspeople went in to negotiate their surrender and the release of about 35 hostages the pro-Gadhafi forces were holding when a firefight broke out. And according to eyewitnesses, 11 people were killed. The town then went on the offensive and basically forced those pro-Gadhafi forces to surrender.

And now, about 350 of them are being held. And when I asked what would happen to those pro-Gadhafi forces, I was told matter of factly that the foreign mercenaries would be executed. I've already seen videos and pictures, too many to count, of what people here tell me are dead mercenaries killed by the crowd in many cities here in the east.

NORRIS: So when we hear Gadhafi call for the military to crush the protesters, it sounds like it's a very different picture there. What would that mean there? Is there - it sounds like there's not much of a military presence there, at least a pro-Gadhafi military presence.

NAVARRO: Yes. There's very little pro-Gadhafi military presence. Certainly, though, in the lobby right behind me, the general of the Libyan forces here in the east is actually giving a press conference, talking about how he is no longer on the side of Gadhafi. So you see that this area is seemingly broken away and they feel that they can wait it out. They're just waiting for Gadhafi to leave.

NORRIS: What do the people in this part of Libya expect now? There are suggestions or tweets in other reports that they're actually developing different names for this part of the country.

NAVARRO: Certainly when we came in, they're calling it free Libya and they really do feel that this is no longer under Gadhafi's domain. And, in fact, when he gave that speech tonight, I was sitting among a group of Libyans who were scoffing and laughing and saying that this was clearly the end of his regime, that he looked completely mad.

Now, Michele, if you think about this country, this has been a country where very few Western journalists have traveled before without the accompaniment of a minder and very few people have been able to travel it and speak to people frankly. And this is the first time that they were actually able to speak to a Western journalist openly about what they felt about Moammar Gadhafi. And what they felt was a great deal of contempt and rage.

NORRIS: NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro is reporting from eastern Libya. Lourdes, thank you very much. And please stay safe.

NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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