Militias In Libya Attack Protesters

A town roughly 25 miles west of Tripoli, Libya, was the site of a violent standoff Thursday morning. Thousands of anti-government protesters had gathered in the town square — in the shadow of a mosque. The army attacked, but was repulsed back to the edge of town by the protesters. Host Michele Norris speaks with a 58-year-old businessman who was in the town square.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Roughly 25 miles west of Tripoli, along the Mediterranean, is the town of Zawiya. It was the site of a violent standoff this morning. Thousands of anti-government protesters had gathered in the town square in the shadow of a mosque. On the road between Tripoli and Zawiya, on the outskirts of town, army forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi were massing.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The army attacked but was pushed back to the edge of town by the protesters. After that initial attack, we managed to get through to a demonstrator in the square. He was on his cell phone. He's a 58-year-old businessman who gave us the name Mohammad(ph). He described the protesters as a formidable group and said they were heavily armed.

MOHAMMAD (Businessman): There's a lot of machineguns here. The opposition, they are dressed in their (unintelligible) because they're ready for the Gadhafi's regime's people to come in. They closed all the roads coming to the square. They have tanks here. They have machineguns. They have artilleries. They have a clashing probe(ph). They have small handguns and machetes, and you name it. They have the weapons, and they are ready for the bastards.

NORRIS: I'm hearing a lot of chaos in the background behind you. Is that gunfire that I'm hearing?

MOHAMMAD: Yeah. This is the (unintelligible). This square here has a mosque, and from the mosque, they announced what's happening and what's going on. So they are encouraging the people to stay put and not to (unintelligible) because it's really hard to (unintelligible) this battle.

NORRIS: How many people are there in the square?

MOHAMMAD: Right now, I'd say at least two, 3,000, at least. Something is happening.

(Soundbite of explosions)

MOHAMMAD: Something is happening now.

NORRIS: What just happened? We heard that. What just happened?

MOHAMMAD: Something is happening now. Yeah. There's something happening. There are those in one corner go into one corner while the opposition are coming through. Something is happening. You hear this much...

(Soundbite of gunfire)

MOHAMMAD: Something is happening right now. Are you still with me, huh?

NORRIS: I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. Are you in a safe place right now?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

MOHAMMAD: Something is happening right now.

NORRIS: Are you in a safe place?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

MOHAMMAD: Well, I'm in the square right now just like everybody else. The other people run to rooftops and hiding behind trees and buildings, but most of them still in the square.

NORRIS: So you're in an open area right now?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, ma'am. We are. (Unintelligible).

NORRIS: Do you know if it's the protesters firing, or are you being fired upon?

MOHAMMAD: I'm not sure, ma'am. I'm not sure. There's, like I told you, couple thousand, maybe 3,000 people here. Everybody - almost everybody is armed here, almost everybody. Almost everybody. Some heavy guns, machineguns, some handguns, some machetes, some everything.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: Are you armed as well?

MOHAMMAD: No, ma'am. I did not go to the barricades to get my own arm. Everybody grabbed what they can, and they armed themselves. I see a tank coming in right now. The opposition just took it. Near the tank - yeah, they just took it from the - the opposition, I guess, from Gadhafi's regime.

NORRIS: When you say they took it, what do you mean by that?

MOHAMMAD: Well, I see a tank coming through the square, so it's either came from Gadhafi's regime's people or from one of those...

NORRIS: Did the tank roll through the barricade there? Is it now in the square?

MOHAMMAD: Inside in the square right now. It's with the opposition.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: So...

MOHAMMAD: I think the machineguns you hear now...

NORRIS: Was this...

MOHAMMAD: ...I think it's just a celebration, so don't be alarmed.

NORRIS: All right. All right. I want to make sure I understand something. The tank that rolled in, was that an army tank that the protesters overturned?

MOHAMMAD: Yes, it's an army tank, yes.

NORRIS: But now it's...

MOHAMMAD: Now it's with the opposition. There's like five, six tanks with the opposition right now.

NORRIS: Did the army just abandon those tanks?

MOHAMMAD: I'm not sure. They abandoned them, or they - if they want to call them the revolutionaries. They won't come down from the camps. It's either or. I'm not sure. I just saw them here in the square.

NORRIS: What do you know about casualties or deaths in the area?

MOHAMMAD: The casualties here, I just went to the gravesite where they had been this morning, six people I see right there in front of me. There are six new graves. And in the hospitals, they say hundreds in the hospital, a lot of them with heavy injuries.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: The wires are reporting that there are several people who have been wounded in this sit-in. Have you had a chance to visit the hospitals? Do you know anything about what's going on at the hospitals there?

MOHAMMAD: Well, I hear rumors now that they went to the hospital, and they emptied the hospitals from the injured people because Gadhafi's son, which his name is Saif al-Islam or something, he was supposed to be bringing some people from the media and showing them that there was nothing happening, and everything is nice in order, schools are open, and this is a lie.

Schools are closed. Shops are closed. The streets are deserted, empty except for a few cars here and there, and there is nothing happening in the city. It's completely shut down. It's completely shut down. And people are staying in their houses except the people right here in the square right now, and they are coming from everywhere in Zawiya.

There are young people, as young as maybe 10 or 15, but there's a lot of old people, as well.

NORRIS: How long have the protesters been there in that square in front of the mosque?

MOHAMMAD: (Unintelligible) I think four or five days.

NORRIS: And how long do you think they're willing to stay?

MOHAMMAD: They are willing to stay. Either he goes, or we go, and that's a fact. I know it from their faces.

NORRIS: Mohammad, the world is watching and listening to what's going on in Libya right now. What, if anything, should the international community do?

MOHAMMAD: I think they should interfere, ma'am. The United States should do something. They're not going to say like what they said in Egypt or Tunisia, OK, we are not doing anything until they knew that the regime is gone, and then they step in. And that's what they are doing in Libya right now.

They are staying away until they know that the people are taking over, and then they're going to come in. But we want them to do that before that happens. We want them to do that and show that they are for the people, for the constitution, for freedom. This country has suffered a lot, 42 years. That's enough.

NORRIS: We've been speaking to a businessman in the town of Zawiya. He's 58 years old, and he's been describing what's happening at a sit-in right in front of a mosque in the town square there. Mohammad, thank you very much.

MOHAMMAD: Thank you, ma'am. You have a good day.

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