Tension Grows Near Libyan Capital

Military units and militias reportedly assaulted anti-government protesters Thursday in Zawiyah, near Tripoli, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has blamed the revolt on followers of Osama bin Laden. NPR's Tom Gjelten provides an update on events in Libya from the Tunisia-Libya border.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After a relatively calm day yesterday, forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and protesters clashed today in towns close to the capital, Tripoli. Pro-Gadhafi forces reportedly fired on a mosque where people were holding a sit-in and battled for control of an airport. A man claiming to be Gadhafi himself in a phone call to state television blamed the uprising on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten joins us now from the Tunisia-Libya border.

Good evening, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And what can you - what are you hearing there from people coming across the border today?

GJELTEN: Well, I've now spent two days at the border, Neal, and during those two days, something like between 10 and 15,000 people have crossed the border from Libya into Tunisia. You know, most of them are men, and most of them are not Libyan. They're mostly workers who have been in Libya - Tunisians, Egyptians, Bangladeshis, some Filipinos and Chinese. They're all rushing to get out of Libya because they say the situation there has just gotten untenable. In fact, most of the places where they worked are now closed.

I spoke to one Turkish man, Neal, who said that on their way to the border today - they came over in a bus - they were - it was a fairly uneventful trip until they got about 30 miles outside Tripoli, and there, they ran into a city where there was heavy fighting between the pro-Gadhafi forces and the anti-Gadhafi forces. They actually had to take a detour around the city. So there's clearly some strife going on in western Libya.

CONAN: And we apologize for the delay on the circuit. But, Tom, from the outside, it looks as if Colonel Gadhafi's forces control the capital, but that the wave of protests continues to gain ground. Is that the impression you get there in Tunisia?

GJELTEN: Absolutely, Neal. I was told that Gadhafi's control of Tripoli, the capital itself, the city, is fairly secure that there is not a whole lot of gunfire or fighting during the day in Tripoli. It's fairly quiet during the day, but there is fighting at night.

But all the people that I spoke to, Neal, said that once you get outside Tripoli, there is very little presence of government control. You know, they do run into checkpoints, army checkpoints, police checkpoints. There are actually Libyan police at the border checking passports today, but minimal. And it sounds to me like western Libya is kind of a no man's land, not claimed really, not governed, secured by either side in this fight.

CONAN: I understand there are calls for people to come out on the streets in Tripoli tomorrow in protest. Is that what you're hearing?

GJELTEN: Well, I have not spoken to a lot of Libyans, but the ones that I have spoken to are really fired up. And they say they are really determined to take back their country.

I spoke to one man yesterday who had come over to Tunisia to get some help and then was planning to go back in and continue resistance work back inside Libya. So we don't have a real good handle on what's going on inside the capital from here on the border.

We mostly hear stories of people being beaten up. A lot of men are showing up at the border and lifting their shirts and showing bruises and scars on their back from getting beaten. A lot of stories of abuse at the hands of - actually, in many cases kind of civilians, pro-Gadhafi civilians who just seem to be on a rampage.

CONAN: And, Tom, finally, is there any word on the progress of evacuations of, well, you're obviously seeing some people come across the border there, but Americans and other foreigners too?

GJELTEN: Well, there's certainly been no Americans come across this border in all the time that I've been here. Most of the Americans have gone out or are going out by plane or by ship. The weather has been not so cooperative the last couple of days. I think there was a lot of wind in the harbor in Tripoli today that made it hard for boats to get in and out.

The - and I don't have an update on the air transportation. The evacuations over land to here have been very smooth. The Chinese Embassy, the Turkish Embassy - there is a huge contingent of foreign embassies and aid organizations. And the Tunisian military here at the border - they're literally moving people across the border by the thousands every day.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much. Thanks for your time.

GJELTEN: Good talking to you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's Tom Gjelten on the line with us from the Tunisia-Libya border. More on the protests and the crackdown later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, including a report from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi, on the opposition's plans to push Gadhafi from power.

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