Anti-Gadhafi Forces Prepare To Take Tripoli

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's control is being whittled away as major cities and towns closer to the capital fall to the rebellion. Forces in the east, led by a former Gadhafi general, are preparing to march on Tripoli.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In Libya, it's been a day in which the government of Moammar Gadhafi has been calling on protesters to turn in their weapons, and the government is offering rewards for those who inform on protest leaders.

It's also been a day in which countries around the world are trying to rescue their citizens from Libya by air and sea. And in the eastern part of the country, it's been another day of freedom from Gadhafi's rule.

Communication with that part of the country is not easy, but we have reached NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on a scratchy phone line. She's been traveling along the Libyan coast. She is now in Benghazi, which was the center of the rebellion.

And Lourdes, who have you been talking to today?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spoke with General Suleiman Mahmoud. He used to be the head of all the eastern forces here in Libya for Gadhafi. He defected over the weekend, and he's now leading the anti-Gadhafi forces. He says that because there's compulsory military service here, most of the young men who are volunteering and there are loads of volunteers, he says, coming in every day already know how to use small arms, but they're training them in heavy weapons, because they feel that's what they'll need to take Tripoli. When I asked him, when was this going to happen, he said it's going to happen very soon.

What we're seeing here is a lot of organizations in the east, political, military, and they want to take Tripoli. They want the west to come and join them and they feel that they need to help the West overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.

INSKEEP: So you're talking to this General Suleiman Mahmoud, who says he will lead military forces against Moammar Gadhafi a significant statement there. Let me ask one question, though: Does he have military forces to send? Because one possibility you could see in this situation is that the forces simply disintegrate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what we see is that the military here is extremely fractured. They basically joined the pro-democracy protesters in the east and now are having militias that are half military, half sort of young guys with guns, and they don't seem particularly organized. And I think what General Suleiman Mahmoud says that they're trying to do now is to sort of whip these people into some semblance of an army. But it remains to be seen how it effective they'll be and whether they can get all these looted weapons back.

I mean, we have gone down streets where we've seen anti-aircraft guns basically parked on the side of the road with young men sort of sitting around them. It's very unclear if they can actually be a credible threat against the Gadhafi regime. But there is a real sense here in the east, they started this revolution, and they want to finish it, and they do feel that people in Tripoli need their help. And there is a sense that they don't want to be a breakaway republic. They don't want to be Free Libya in the east. They want to have a free, full Libya that includes the capital, Tripoli.

INSKEEP: Do you have a sense there of how much fighting and how much violence there was before Gadhafi's forces were driven away?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have been traveling all through eastern Libya, and now we're in Benghazi. And everywhere we've gone, there's been a real sense of the violence that has taken place here. What we've seen is bloody battles in every city.

Yesterday in Bayda, the head of the hospital said that 63 people had been killed in the fighting just in that town - of course, the numbers much greater here in Benghazi, which is the second-largest city in Libya and the scene of much of the violence against the protesters. So really, quite bloody battles, people talking to me the whole time about what they experienced, what they saw. People here are now heavily armed, as well. They are afraid that they might face retaliation if Moammar Gadhafi's forces manage to rally in Tripoli. They don't know what is going to come next, but they're preparing for the worst.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in eastern Libya.

Lourdes, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that forces loyal to Gadhafi are securing the area around Tripoli. They're setting up roadblocks. Witnesses say troops attacked protestors to the west of Tripoli.

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